Blogs / 13 Feb 2023 6 min

The neurobiological underpinning of bias and how to overcome it

By Vida Škreb – Managing Consultant – Equity, Diversity & Inclusion, Shape Talent

We are all biased, it’s simply how the brain is built. To help us survive, the human brain has evolved to make decisions in a split second, identifying danger and jumping to action. This lifesaving functionality favours the assumption that something is a threat and to fight or run away, rather than to be benevolent in our assumptions and risk our lives. The drive to survive has wired the human brain to have a bias toward assuming danger.

The problem is this same system that helped us survive is still operating in us today. It leads us to see threats where there are none, as the evolutionary fight-or-flight system kicks in. When something is unknown or violates our expectations and embedded stereotypes, we will automatically assume it’s not good for us. This is a huge problem as we inadvertently exclude those that don’t meet our subconscious expectations. Susan Friske from Princeton University describes these stereotypes as accidents of history.

The key player responsible for bias in our brains is the amygdala. This tiny brain region is in charge of detecting threats and activating the fight or flight response. Sapolsky in his seminal book, Behave, says the amygdala needs only 50 to 150 milliseconds to spot gender, race, or to distinguish someone’s rank. If it spots something unusual, it will alarm us through an uncomfortable feeling that we later rationalise by finding “rational” arguments. The problem is, these labels and reasons that we rationally assign are usually wrong.  If we don’t question our decisions, bias can quickly creep in.

The amygdala likes what is familiar and similar to us. It will complain when exposed to differences or if something violates expectations. For example, seeing a woman as CEO is less typical so will arouse suspicion in the diligent amygdala. We can – in subtle, or less subtle ways – become less generous, trusting, cooperative or helpful to those that we somehow perceive as different, as explained by Sapolsky.

Friske, in her pioneering work, says we tend to see the “other” as either lacking in warmth, competency, or both. For example, in most cultures, the elderly are seen as high in warmth but low in competence, provoking pity. The wealthy are seen as high in competence but low in warmth, provoking envy. The homeless are seen as lacking in both, provoking disgust. Those that are in “our group”, similar to us are seen as both competent and warm. Her studies have shown that women that stay at home are typically seen as warm but lacking in competence, whereas professional women are perceived to be lacking in warmth but allegedly competent.

In short, we will start to exclude those that are different, and the whole process tends to be below our awareness.

What can we do to counteract this?

The brain can change its mind if we show it how. Besides the reactive amygdala, we have more mature brain regions that are highly capable of seeing beyond false assumptions. We just need to activate them. They might be a bit slower to respond but have the wisdom and generosity we need to navigate us into creating belonging. This can be done by raising awareness of bias, teaching tools, and creating new habits that are more inclusive. The key is to have curiosity, instead of judgment. Regularly practicing being more open-minded and welcoming to those that are different from us will show the amygdala that the other is in fact, not a threat. Building real connections will convince it that it can put the guard down.

For organisations and leaders, this means putting in processes to help us mitigate biases and their effects. Here are some suggestions.

  1. Nudge towards inclusion with language
    Reminders play a big role in shaping perceptions and, consequently, actions. Mentioning loyalty strengthens separation and mentioning equality strengthens inclusion. Think about the language you use in your leadership frameworks and values and be cognizant of how you speak to your teams to stimulate inclusive behaviours. Reviewing your organisation’s documentation and communications to debias language and inspire inclusion is a big step toward building a culture of inclusive language.
  2. Direct attention towards a counter-bias
    This is another powerful tool to overcome biases. Ask people to focus on counter-bias. For example, let them imagine a black woman as a CEO or use images that feature minority groups. An example would be to review websites and other company material to ensure they have a diverse representation in images.
  3. Connect people through sharing work goals
    According to Friske, building a sense of interdependence diminishes the presence of harmful stereotypes. This means creating shared goals that unify employees. It’s important that all have equal status in the groups to ensure inclusion. Having an authority figure underline is the importance of this is key to creating buy-in. We pay more attention to those we need to work with. This helps break down stereotypes as we spot what is unique about a person. We can often find something we have in common, even if it’s something small. This helps break down barriers. Orchestrating collaboration such that it brings diverse groups together can be a powerful way to instil inclusion.

We will always have a tendency to be biased, it’s simply a part of the human existence. However, every time we notice bias and we start to question it, its hold on us will ease and we will be free to make fairer choices. If we regularly explore our biases with curiosity and look for practical ways to overcome them, we can create a more inclusive work environment from which everyone benefits. Simple things like using inclusive language, directing attention toward inclusion, and having people work together can play a big role creating belonging.

If you’d like to discuss how Shape Talent can help with addressing bias in your organisation, talk to us about our Debias Audit.

Vida Škreb is an Managing Consultant – Equity, Diversity & Inclusion, Shape Talent at Shape Talent Ltd, the diversity, equity and inclusion experts for complex multinational organisations who are serious about gender equality – and what it can achieve for their business.

Click here learn more about Shape Talent and join our mailing list to be the first to receive our tools, research, event invites and updates.

And be sure to follow us on social media: