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

posted on August 31, 2021

By World Economic Forum | July 29, 2021

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.

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