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In this blog we’ll share how to identify unconscious bias and stop it sneaking into your engagement program!

Did you know that you’re more likely to believe something simply because others do? Or that you’re more likely to accept information that confirms your own world view?

Naively, I had been thinking that I was enough of a critical thinker to form my own ideas, beliefs and assumptions about the world; that because I’ve been aware of stereotypes and other biases, issues such as these didn’t really apply to me. I was wrong. And apparently I’m not the only one who is…

According to Harvard University researcher, Mahzarin Banaji, “Most of us believe that we are ethical and unbiased. We imagine we’re good decision makers… But more than two decades of research confirms that, in reality, most of us fall woefully short of our inflated self-perception.

Unconscious bias is not something that only affects the majority; it has a biological basis that exists within all of us. So, the real question is not “do you have bias?” but rather “which are yours?”

Our unconscious mind is what allows us to make quick assessments of people and situations without us realising. This is very useful, except for the fact that the brain operates efficiently, meaning we don’t thoroughly interpret everything we see. In other words, we do not see our world as it really is, we see our world the way our bias allows us to see it. Our biases are influenced by our background, cultural environment and personal experiences. We may not even be aware of these views and opinions, or be aware of their full impact and implications.

When coordinating community engagement projects we will continue to design projects, conduct research, engage with the community, analyse results and make decisions with filters on our thinking as long as bias exists.This means there is substantial value to be unlocked in a more conscious approach to decision making – by addressing unconscious bias and increasing the rigour within our programs we can improve the quality of all decisions we make. It’s not easy. In fact, the closer we are to projects, the more we invest of ourselves, the more we want them to succeed (consciously and unconsciously), and the more we can be influenced by results we’d like to see. Interestingly, it’s often those with more distance that can add valuable insight.

Here a few steps we can take to reduce the effects of unconscious bias:

  1. Be aware of generalisations: Stereotypical views and generalisations can easily creep into our language. Be alert for misplaced adjectives or broad sweeping statements.
  2. Challenge your decision-making: Get into the habit of asking yourself ‘why am I thinking this way?’ Be particularly aware of first impressions and gut reactions in your decision-making.
  3. Avoid groupthink and confirmation bias: When considering how you’ve arrived at a decision consider if the information is confirming what you already thought (confirmation bias) or if you could be influenced by what others think (groupthink). I found it fascinating to learn that probability of one person adopting a belief increases based on the number of people who hold that belief.
  4. Take a test: Harvard University have developed a series of free Implicit Association Tests (IAT)to help identify unconscious bias. Once aware of any biases, you can reflect on your behaviours and introduce strategies to reduce bias from your actions.
  5. Work beyond your comfort zone: Look for ways to work with others of different backgrounds, skillsets, and cultures both in and outside your organisation. They can start to challenge preconceptions and expand your thinking.

For me personally, I have realised how many biases can exist during the project lifecycle and this year I’ve decided to challenge how decisions have been made, be it my own or those of my colleagues. From asking why one engagement method has been chosen over another, to querying the use of one dataset over another. I’m also making a concerted effort to work with a wider variety of people from different backgrounds and different organisations.

By asking the tough questions I feel as though I’m starting to challenge ideas and assumptions. I am hoping to combat inhibitive patterns of thinking and start opening up new options for exploration and optimal problem solving.

How will you start to address unconscious bias?

Need another perspective on your engagement project? At Conversation Caravan we’re always happy for a chat. Bring along your notepad, but leave your biases at home.

Written by Monique Cosgrove Conversation Caravan’s expert in community engagement on topics of engaging vulnerable communities. 

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