So, You Say You’re Not Biased?

At any given moment, there are around 11 million bits of information flying around us. And while the human brain is pretty amazing, it is only able to process about 40 of those bits at a time. So, it creates shortcuts using what we already know (or think we know) to make assumptions and connect the dots. This unconscious process is influenced by our background, culture, environment, and personal experiences. These shortcuts are powerfully directed by all the things we expect to be true in the world around us. This is how unconscious biases are born.

While most of us believe we are ethical and unbiased, over 1,000 studies in the past 10 years alone have conclusively shown that if you’re human, you have bias, and that it impacts almost every variation of human identity: Race, gender, sexual orientation, body size, religion, accent, height, even hand dominance.

The question is not “are you biased?” but rather “how are you biased?”

People like to think that they don’t see color, gender or other social categories. But, recent studies indicate that none of us are truly “blind” to social groups. The human brain automatically makes note of people around us and it takes only very minor cues for our minds to form a judgment about them. It may be a person’s gender or skin color. Even a person’s name can conjure up stereotypical images. We are so bad at identifying our unconscious biases that detecting them has become a growing business.

It called the bias blind spot, and while some people are more susceptible to a bias blind spot than others, we all have one and it has nothing to do with intelligence or self-esteem.

The bias blind spot is a powerful barrier in the judgments we form of others and the decisions we make.

People more prone to think they are less biased than others are less accurate at evaluating their abilities relative to others, they listen less to advice, and are less receptive to learning how to recognize and overcome them.

  • The greater the bias blind spot people have, the less accurate they are at evaluating their own ability in comparison to others.
  • People with a greater bias blind spot are more likely to ignore advice or incorporate constructive criticism from others into their opinions and decisions.
  • People with a greater bias blind spot are less likely to learn from training or people who could help them identify their biases.

For example, we all have a natural propensity to want to be around people we can relate to – “people like me.” It’s a well-established bias called the affinity bias.  if we are honest, have a really hard time contemplating the alternative. If affinity bias means being biased towards “people who make me comfortable” or “people who are like me,” then tucked away in the back of our minds are “people who are not like me” and “people who make me uncomfortable.” Even if it conflicts with our conscious value system.

So, before you try to convince someone how unbiased you are, take a step back and remember that we all have a bias blind spot. The more you acknowledge it, the smaller it gets.


Melissa Hughes, Ph.D.
Melissa Hughes, Ph.D.
Dr. Melissa Hughes is a neuroscience geek, keynote speaker, and author. Her latest book, Happier Hour with Einstein: Another Round explores fascinating research about how the brain works and how to make it work better for greater happiness, well-being, and success. Having worked with learners from the classroom to the boardroom, she incorporates brain-based research, humor, and practical strategies to illuminate the powerful forces that influence how we think, learn, communicate and collaborate. Through a practical application of neuroscience in our everyday lives, Melissa shares productive ways to harness the skills, innovation and creativity within each of us in order to contribute the intellectual capital that empowers organizations to succeed with social, financial and cultural health.

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  1. Thank you for this article, Melissa. I’ve had similar musings about this before but how you said it made more sense. I’ve stated that I am biased; especially with first impressions. But that’s when I tell myself to become more open. It doesn’t stop the initial biased reaction, but it helps me deal more openly with the person moving forward.

    • Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this one, John. I think it’s hard for most of us to admit we are biased. For me, it’s easier to digest when I realize it’s just how the brain is wired. It takes intention to overcome it.