Unconscious Bias and Armpits Have a Lot in Common

I love the “boots and sandals” analogy for understanding how to respond when called on your privilege. (If you don’t know about this, check it out here.) 

It inspired me to come up with my own analogy that I’ve found useful in talking about unconscious biases. 

Unconscious biases are like armpits.

  •  Everyone has them.

  •  It is not your fault that you have them.

  • Most of the time you are not aware of them.

  • Sometimes other people might point out to you that your armpits are offensive.

  • When that happens, it is your responsibility to clean them up.

 Unconscious biases arise from some of the shortcuts our minds create that allow us to move efficiently and safely through life – our cognitive biases. (For a remarkable graphic illustration of cognitive biases, check out the Cognitive Bias Codex).

 An overly simplified yet refreshingly brief summary of the shortcuts that lead to unconscious bias: we have minds that excel at pattern recognition, prefer what is familiar, and are very good at rationalizing our behavior.

 Being good at pattern recognition is a valuable survival skill. When our ancestors confronted a large predator – a saber-toothed tiger, say – an individual’s chance of survival was heightened if they did not have to stand there thinking, “Hmmm, it’s big and furry and has stripes and these really big teeth and enormous claws and maybe I should consider leaving the scene. . . .” Those who recognized in an instant that the thing approaching them was a threat lived to produce the folks who produced us. Our brains are so good a this, we recognize patterns even where there are none to be found – just ask the people who find images of Elvis or Jesus or Kurt Cobain seared into their breakfast toast.

 Preference for what is familiar is another survival skill. When it comes to avoiding predators, poisons, and other dangers, sticking with what you know has advantages. As you would imagine, it definitely gets in the way of making any diverse group of people truly inclusive. The flip side of preferring the familiar is a reaction ranging from mild discomfort to fear in the face of the unfamiliar. We prefer what we know well, even when sticking with the familiar doesn’t get us what we say we want, or what will bring us happiness. This is how life coaches can make a living nudging people out of their “comfort zones” to make real changes in their lives.

 And rationalizing behavior? We do it all the time without realizing it. The parts of our brains that work behind our conscious mind generate and initiate decisions and actions well before our conscious minds have the thought, “Oh, here is why I will do that.” Cognitive biases happen behind the scenes – we don’t have to think about them and they usually don’t rise to the awareness of our conscious mind. Rather, we use our conscious mind to generate reasons for the things we do that are the result of cognitive bias.

 Combine these three and you have a formula for biases that we have little conscious control over. Stereotyping, implicit association of certain characteristics with particular groups of people, even the struggle we have to distinguish faces of people from a different race, discomfort with people or cultures that differ from our own, and the seemingly instantaneous defensiveness that springs up when our biases are challenged or called out.

 If you are committed to creating more diverse and inclusive spaces – workplaces, conferences, social circles, community groups – an understanding of unconscious bias is a good place to start.

 Like all good explorations, it leads to the next question: What are you going to do about it? Are you willing to listen when someone tells you that you’ve caused an offense? Will you take responsibility for cleaning it up?