Why the unconscious is the path of least resistance to eradicating bias in your workplace

(Credit: Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Leslie Zane President, Triggers Brand Consulting


• Efforts to consciously persuade people not to be biased are counterproductive.

• The brand research concept of ‘connectomes’ can be applied to perceptions of groups too.

• Exposing people to positive reinforcement regarding other groups can influence such social connectomes.

In many parts of the world, bigotry is on the rise. Attacks, both verbal and physical, against various groups are being reported. The COVID-19 outbreak has fueled anti-Asian discrimination and deadly violence. Anti-Semitic attacks against Jewish people – the most targeted religious group for hate crimes in the United States and Canada – have been spiking around the world. These developments come after years in which nearly three-quarters of Black Americans said the Trump presidency made race relations worse.

In addition to the human costs of discrimination – both violent and otherwise – there are economic ones as well. As the World Economic Forum’s Joseph Lasavio explained in a column for the International Monetary Fund: “The wealth gap between American whites and Blacks is projected to cost the US economy between $1 trillion and $1.5 trillion in lost consumption and investment between 2019 and 2028.” And in France: “GDP could jump 1.5 percent over the next 20 years – an economic bonus of $3.6 billion – by reducing racial gaps in access to employment, work hours and education.”

Workplaces can play a major role in helping combat bigotry. Unfortunately, their efforts very often go wrong, wasting huge amounts of time and money without getting results.

Why is it so difficult to make progress on bias? Because organizations are putting their focus in the wrong place. They hold training sessions and events trying to persuade people not to be biased. They provide numerical goals and guidelines for how many women and minorities should be hired or promoted, which does not address how people instinctively feel about others of different backgrounds.

All of these efforts focus on the conscious mind, which can be resistant to change, sceptical and rigid. So organizations are essentially taking the path of greatest resistance. To increase understanding and really move the needle on bias, workplaces need to focus on the root of the problem: the unconscious mind.

Understanding connectomes

Nobel Prize-winning behavioural economist Daniel Kahneman explained that the human mind uses shortcuts, known as “heuristics”, to make decisions. He describes two mental systems at play. “While System 2 is conscious, System 1 effortlessly originates “impressions and feelings that are the main sources of the explicit beliefs and deliberate choices of System 2,” he says. This helps explain why, by one Harvard professor’s estimate, 95% of decisions are unconscious.

But what lies inside the mental shortcuts that people take? Through years of research and work helping brands reach consumers through the unconscious mind, I’ve found that inside each person’s mind lies a network of memories and associations with any given brand. I call each of these a Brand Connectome.

It isn’t just brands that have connectomes. Campaigns, social issues and people have them as well. The same applies to groups. Inside people’s minds lie networks of associations with any group of people – whether a race, gender, religion or political affiliation. People aren’t conscious of what these memories and associations are. And they don’t realize how these connectomes guide their instinctive behaviour.

So even though these days there’s a lot of talk about “unconscious bias”, most workplace efforts don’t address it where it actually resides: in people’s connectomes.

Rewiring connectomes

The good news is that connectomes are malleable. They can be changed, but not through activities that focus on the conscious mind. Just as trying to debunk lies can reinforce them in someone’s mind unconsciously, trying to debunk negative beliefs about groups of people can do the same.

“By articulating various stereotypes associated with particular groups, emphasizing the salience of those stereotypes, and then calling for their suppression, they often end up reinforcing them in participants’ minds,” Columbia University professor Musa al-Gharbi reports. Sometimes they even implant new stereotypes by introducing people to ones they hadn’t heard before.

Workplaces do better when they instead help overwhelm the negative associations people have with various groups by exposing them to an abundance of positive ones. The more people see and experience positive associations about a brand or a group of people, the more their instinctive responses to that brand or group turn positive.

This helps explain why increased work interactions and mentoring can be helpful drivers for greater understanding and reduction of bias. So can images that celebrate people from various groups in a positive light. These experiences and images get “glued” to their cumulative memories of the group, replacing negative associations with positive ones. As a result, people’s instinctive reactions to those groups change. One study found that “supraliminal” (unconscious) exposure to Asian and Black faces increased white people’s “subsequent liking” for other Black and Asian faces.

What’s the World Economic Forum doing about diversity, equity and inclusion?

The COVID-19 pandemic and recent social and political unrest have created a profound sense of urgency for companies to actively work to tackle inequity.

The Forum’s work on Diversity, Equality, Inclusion and Social Justice is driven by the New Economy and Society Platform, which is focused on building prosperous, inclusive and just economies and societies. In addition to its work on economic growth, revival and transformation, work, wages and job creation, and education, skills and learning, the Platform takes an integrated and holistic approach to diversity, equity, inclusion and social justice, and aims to tackle exclusion, bias and discrimination related to race, gender, ability, sexual orientation and all other forms of human diversity.

The Platform produces data, standards and insights, such as the Global Gender Gap Report and the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion 4.0 Toolkit, and drives or supports action initiatives, such as Partnering for Racial Justice in Business, The Valuable 500 – Closing the Disability Inclusion Gap, Hardwiring Gender Parity in the Future of Work, Closing the Gender Gap Country Accelerators, the Partnership for Global LGBTI Equality, the Community of Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officers and the Global Future Council on Equity and Social Justice.

Instead of confronting the conscious mind, these kinds of efforts collaborate with the unconscious mind to leverage the brain’s own behaviour-change mechanism. Of course, this does not mean that tackling entrenched bigotry is in any way easy. But the activities businesses engage in can be an important part of the solution – as long as they take the path of least psychological resistance.

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