What To Know About Unconscious Bias And How You Can Combat It

Every person on earth holds biases within them. Some are conscious and some are unconscious. A conscious bias is one that you're aware of. For example, if you knowingly buy into the tired stereotype that Asians are inferior drivers, you're operating according to a conscious bias. Unconscious bias — also known as implicit bias — on the other hand, is much more difficult to identify. These biases form without your awareness. They are your brain's attempt at categorizing and filing away background information so that your consciousness can focus on more immediately pressing tasks (via PEDIAA).


Unfortunately, your unconscious brain's processing powers don't include filtering out any limiting beliefs or harmful stereotypes. Since these biases are not present in your conscious mind, it takes very specific and intentional action to combat them, as detailed by Raconteur. Here's exactly how you can identify your unconscious biases, challenge them, and begin to dismantle them from within your own mind. 

Be honest with yourself

The first step to changing your own unconscious biases is to become aware of them. This is only possible by way of honest assessment. If you're lucky, a genuine person in your life might point out that certain behaviors you exhibit suggest implicit bias (via National Equity Project). Rather than reacting out of shame, defensiveness, or denial, accept the information and truly explore it. If you don't have people around you to point out the potential biases underlying your behaviors, you'll have to look for them yourself.


Try to look at your behavior with the same objectivity you would apply to another person. Examine your recent interactions with people of different genders, races, ethnicities, social classes, or economic statuses than your own and see if any patterns emerge that make you curious or uncomfortable (via Harvard Business Review). Look up common stereotypes and see if you find yourself agreeing with any of them. Remember that unconscious bias exists in everyone and it does not make you a bad person. In fact, seeking these beliefs out and changing them is one of the kindest acts you can engage in for the sake of humanity. 

Challenge your biases

Once you've identified your unconscious biases, it's time to challenge them. Your brain won't change its implicit beliefs unless you replace the information it currently has to base its assumptions on with new intel. In order to get this process started, as suggested by Web MD, choose one of your recently discovered unconscious beliefs and put it to the test. If you've discovered, for instance, that you hold the belief that people who show their emotions at work are weak-minded, try to remember a time when this proved to be untrue.


Perhaps your favorite sales manager and professional idol, Rita, started to cry at her work desk last year after experiencing the loss of a beloved pet. Recall this incident with as many of your senses as possible. Remember how she sounded, how she looked, and how uncomfortable it may have made you feel. Then, try to remember with the same clarity how she continued to exhibit the same hard-working, intelligent, ambitious, and inspiring traits she always had. As you move forward, keep your eyes open for more experiences that challenge this bias to rewrite the script in your unconscious mind. 

Seek out more diversity

The most effective way to open yourself up to experiences that challenge your unconscious biases is to seek out as much diversity as possible in every aspect of your life. After you've made a point to spend as much time around the people in your life who are different than you, look for ways to bring even more of those people into your life, as advised by Ad Council. If you're looking for a new job, make diversity one of your top priorities. If there is a move in your future, keep an eye out for a more diverse neighborhood.


Seek out recreational activities that put you in touch with people who are as different from you as possible as often as possible. It's hard to continue to believe, for example, that people who receive government food assistance are lazy when you've seen your new friend, co-worker, or associate balance two jobs, college classes, and childcare fees that nearly equal her hourly wage on a regular basis. Flood your brain with challenges to its implicit biases and you'll see them begin to change (via Affirmity). 

Practice empathy

Since your implicit biases are made up of information your brain has basically filled in for you, they can make up the vast majority of your default impressions and reactions. Once you've broadened your horizons and surrounded yourself with people from all different backgrounds and walks of life, use your new position to practice empathy. Empathy is different from sympathy and goes beyond intellectual understanding that a person is facing a difficult situation. Instead, empathizing with a person involves actually feeling their pain, as detailed by BetterUp.


When attempting to empathize with someone experiencing a situation you've never been in, try your hardest to imagine what it would feel like to actually be in their position. If the person is someone you're close to, ask them how they feel about the challenge they're facing. Remember a time when you felt a similar emotion and recall how it felt in your body and how it affected your thoughts. When you've truly connected to and shared the feelings of another person, it becomes more difficult to view them and others like them according to your brain's implicit bias, according to the American Bar Association

Live mindfully

Your brain is always taking in information and processing it to better serve you. If you take the time and make the effort to identify your biases and spend more time with people from groups you were holding onto unconscious stereotypes against, but then go right back to the way you were living before, your work will have been for nothing. Your implicit biases will shift and then they'll gradually slip right back into the patterns they had formed before you called them out.


If you want the changes you've made to your own unconscious biases to become permanent, you have to permanently alter your way of thinking. In order to take inventory of this, learn to operate mindfully. This means making a habit out of becoming aware of every thought and feeling that passes through your mind and body throughout the day. You can become more mindful by creating a mind-dumping journaling practice, as detailed by Planning Mindfully. Or, take a few minutes to meditate and reflect on your emotions and reactions each day (via Mindful). 

Respect yourself

In order to respect others, you need to first respect yourself, according to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Your unconscious biases are not limited to beliefs about other people or groups. You also hold implicit biases concerning your own abilities, strengths, and weaknesses. This might look like a persistent — though not quite conscious — belief that you are inherently undisciplined or unorganized, which keeps you from attempting to strike out on your own and start your own business. It may take the form of a deep implicit belief that you, at your core, are unlovable, and therefore you unconsciously avoid situations where you could meet a potential partner.


If you yearn to free yourself from unconscious biases that affect your interactions with other people, you must examine those that interfere with your ability to love, respect, and care for yourself as well. Beginning with your own limiting beliefs can teach you how to identify the patterns you'll need to spot in order to tackle your unconscious beliefs about others (via Lifehack). 

Set specific intentions

Wishing to examine, challenge, and change your own implicit biases is noble. However, the difference between wishing and accomplishing comes down to planning and action. Once you've become familiar with some of your own biases, get very specific about how you intend to change each one of them. Choose a bias and write down a plan. Struggling with gender bias? Perhaps you'd like to commit to having a one-on-one conversation with every woman in your department this month to get to know them and their life experiences better.


If you're still working to change limiting beliefs about yourself, get intentional about how you can challenge those the same way. If you've realized that you don't feel worthy of love and that's why you refuse to go out with your single friends, set an intention to accept their next three invitations. Has your brain been programmed to believe that you're bad with money? Set an intention to book a consultation with a financial advisor within the next three months. The more specific a goal is, the more manageable it becomes, as explained by MindTools

Change your behavior to change your thoughts

If you keep avoiding financial responsibilities even after you've realized your unconscious belief that you can't be trusted to manage money, you'll get stuck in the honest assessment phase. If you want to change your brain, you have to change your behavior. When you confront a bias by tackling it head-on and proving it wrong, you provide your brain with new information to automatically process into new implicit beliefs. Nothing changes inwardly if nothing changes outwardly.


You don't need to change the biases you've identified before you can start to change your behavior. It is your behavior that must change first and the results of your new behavior will provide the necessary input to change your beliefs at their core (via Positive Psychology). Unconscious bias is one area of life in which faking it until you make it by replacing old behaviors until your thought patterns follow is actually a feasible and responsible plan.