What is society protesting about – specific issues or Unconscious Bias?

The unconscious mind is a vast place. Most of what we do on a daily basis is controlled by the unconscious: when you drive, drink, wash. You don’t have to think about most processes, even as I type I have embedded the skill of touch typing into my hands and don’t have to bother my conscious mind with the detail (show off ).

Mostly our brains make shortcuts based on our experience, on our background, our language, culture and our upbringing. This results in incredibly quick decisions and judgements being made not only about processes like typing but also about other people.

Now, here’s the rub. Although we are very efficient about learning, embedding and then unconsciously using skills like typing, on many other matters, the automatic processing is actually wrong. However, so ingrained are our thoughts and processes that we are not even aware that we are employing them. If you’ve ever fallen for one of those puzzles about ‘if John’s aunt is my mother’s brother, then who am I?’, your brain can be in danger of falling into a shortcut, instinctive trap.

Here is the problem that we are facing in terms of human interaction: In milliseconds, our brains see someone and make a judgement of them based on things like gender, looks, age etc. We are fundamentally deciding if the ‘other’ is part of our In or Out group. As it is so important for humans to form tribes in order to keep safe (this very primitive instinct is a little archaic and yet still drives a huge amount of human behaviour), we favour people who are like us. We tend to want to belong and belong to a powerful group, hence we may want to affiliate with a set who we see as more powerful and unconsciously favour them even if they are outside of our ‘in’ group. A woman may side with a man’s decision for example. Research even shows that people tend to nod along with a man’s voice as opposed to a woman’s.

This is unconscious bias and we all have it and do it. It takes work to eradicate or at least question it.

Recently, in the UK and around the world, we have seen lots of examples of unconscious bias being highlighted through the Black Lives Matter and the Me Too campaigns, and more recently with the public acknowledgement that women live their lives making decisions based around fear.

I don’t believe that we are all walking around deliberately prejudicing other groups, I am sure it does exist in lots of individuals but my social circles and work circles are actually full of people who strive to be inclusive and embrace diversity. However, well-meaning as they are, I also believe that all of us have this unconscious bias.

So, what on earth can we do about it? Do protests work? Has ‘Gen Z’ got it right and this current cancellingand WOKE culture is just more enlightened than any before?

The only way to help our poor brains to re-think is to take things from the unconscious to the conscious. The amount of sensory data arriving in our brains every second is so vast (about 11million bits and yet we only process about 50!) that we have to delete a whole load of information and make the short cuts. So, perhaps by accessing the other 10,999,950 pieces of information or at least bringing some of them into our awareness, we can spot the unconscious bias, stop it and choose something different.

It’s not just companies and employers who have a duty to do this, it’s you and me too.

But how?

First thing is to slow down your decision making.

Once a decision is made, reconsider your reason for it.

Question cultural stereotypes when you hear them – it is easier to hear others using them than to hear your own.

Practise spotting the bias by merely listening to a news item. They are never far away, especially if you listen to a phone in.

Once we are at the stage of needing protests, we are way down the line – as we already are for all of the Protected Characteristics* and I am not convinced this is the most efficient way to create change. Those who already have a strong bias will easily see protest as a vindication of their bias. However, if we all create awareness, question the stereotypes and change our own, there will be a shift. We can’t cure unconscious bias, but we can challenge it and it is a lifelong challenge – and one I believe is worth rising to.

*Protected Characteristics are:

Age, Religion or Belief, Sexual Orientation, Sex, Race, Disability, Gender Reassignment, Marriage and Civil Partnership, Pregnancy and Maternity,