Unconscious Bias Is Real, and Can Be Devastating

In a previous post I made reference to Project Implicit, a non-profit organization and international collaboration between researchers who are interested in implicit social cognition – thoughts and feelings outside of conscious awareness and control. The goal of the organization is to educate the public about hidden (unconscious) biases and to provide a “virtual laboratory” for collecting data on the Internet.

In that post I noted that I took one of the 14 Implicit Association Tests offered by Project Implicit, and was surprised, and concerned, that the results indicated a strong gender bias associating men with career and women with family. I was not consciously aware of having such a bias; perhaps that’s why they are referred to as hidden biases.

I’m guessing many people had not heard of unconscious bias until the past couple of days. Hidden biases were in the news this week, and not in a good way. I’m sure many of you did hear about the outrageous incident at a Starbucks in Philadelphia this past weekend. For those of you who may not have heard, here’s an excerpt from the Chicago Tribune describing the incident:

(Philadelphia Police) Officials have said the officers were told the (two black) men had asked to use the store’s restroom but were denied because they hadn’t bought anything, and they refused to leave.

Video shows several police talking quietly with two black men seated at a table. After a few minutes, officers handcuff the men and lead them outside as other customers say they weren’t doing anything wrong. A white man identified as real estate developer Andrew Yaffe arrives and tells the officers the two men were waiting for him. An officer says the men were not complying and were being arrested for trespassing.

The entire incident was captured on video, and led to protests at the store which effectively shut the store down, and demands that the manager be fired.

The chief executive of Starbucks, Kevin Johnson, visited the store today and apologized for what he called “reprehensible” circumstances. The manager of the store has been fired.

In addition to wanting to meet the two men who were arrested and apologize to them face to face, Johnson has called for “unconscious bias” training for store managers.

I’m sure a lot of people just roll their eyes when they hear that their company is going to be engaged in such training. But apparently there is a real need for it, and I am happy to say that Villanova, in conjunction with The CEO Action for Diversity & Inclusion™, has taken the lead among all colleges in the U.S. in addressing such biases. The CEO Action for Diversity & Inclusion™ is led by a steering committee of CEOs and leaders from Accenture, BCG, Deloitte US, The Executive Leadership Council, EY, General Atlantic, KPMG, New York Life, Procter & Gamble and PwC.

While researchers have indicated that there is “not yet enough research to say for sure that implicit biases can be reduced, let alone eliminated.”, I think such training can be helpful. I would hope that once you become aware of what your unconscious biases are, you can then develop a personal plan of action to lessen the likelihood that such a bias would affect their decision making.

The Starbucks incident gave all of us the opportunity to see firsthand what the impact of unconscious bias can be, and I wish them the best with their training program.

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