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Unconscious Bias and the Public Servant: What can we do to overcome unconscious bias?

African American woman on a video call with a diverse group of professionals.

“As we walk the pathway to justice, we must first address our own Unconscious Bias” – Kiana Atkins


Unconscious bias is a positive or negative mental attitude towards a person, thing, or group that a person is unaware of having. 1The content of our unconscious biases are developed from an early age based on our life experiences and repeated exposure to certain societal messages or ideas. For the purposes of our discussion, we are using the term “unconscious bias;” however, it is important to recognize that other articles may use the terms “implicit bias” and “implicit social cognition,” all of which generally refer to the same concept.

Perhaps just as important as understanding what unconscious bias is, is understanding that bias is a normal part of human behavior. In order to make sense of a complex world, our mind categorizes things and people based on how they fit into our past experiences and then associates values with those categories such as good or bad; right or wrong; safe or unsafe. These valued categories, or biases, help us to survive by allowing us to make snap decisions that can save us from danger or protect our families and livelihoods.5 Unfortunately, our mind is categorizing, valuing, and forming biases on an unconscious level. What this means is that we may take actions that are unintentionally discriminatory in nature based on personal biases that we are completely unaware of.

As NIH employees, we serve the public by conducting and supporting health discovery. Our innovations provide hope to those that need it most: hope for increased mobility or a full night’s sleep, hope for pain relief or a healthy child, hope for a second chance or a graceful goodbye. In their time of need, the people who are bearing the brunt of disease or caring for their loved ones are looking to NIH for answers. What we do, and how we do it, matters.

Unconscious bias is subtle, yet powerful. Left unchecked, bias can subvert the best of intentions by clouding judgment, limiting creativity, and contaminating findings. The quality of our research, and the health of those who depend on it, hinges on our ability to recognize and address our unconscious biases so that we make sound, neutral judgments.

Here are some tips for addressing personal biases:

  • Acknowledge your bias. The first step in defeating unconscious bias is to be honest with ourselves. It can be difficult to recognize personal biases, especially unconscious biases, but, there are resources available which are designed to assist us in identifying our biases. Project Implicit has a number of tests ranging from race to obesity which can help bring unconscious biases to light.
  • Learn more about you. Ask a trusted friend or colleague for candid feedback. Willingness to examine our own possible biases is an important step in understanding the roots of stereotypes and prejudice.
  • Extend your comfort zone. Personal biases can be combatted by getting to know people on an individual level. Biases can derive from stereotypes and generalizations; getting to know individuals can lead to proving them wrong.
  • Take responsibility for mitigating bias. Once you become aware of potential biases, practice self-monitoring. Through self- monitoring and self-regulation, you can interrupt biased thinking and generate non-discriminatory behavior.
  • Admit mistakes. Don’t be afraid to acknowledge, and apologize for, mistakes. Everyone makes a misstep on occasion, use mistakes as an opportunity to better yourself and strengthen your relationship with others.

Here are some strategies that are being used to address bias in public and private industries at the organization level:

  • Create structure. Develop clear rating metrics, try to identify sources of ambiguity, and employ structured control management of decision-making measures when possible.
  • Evaluate decisions. Conduct external review of decisions in order to detect and correct potentially biased results.
  • Normalize the conversation around bias. Senior management should model ideal behaviors and discuss the importance of unconscious bias with their employees.
  • Take the Pledge. Encourage your office or organization to join NIH EDI in promoting a culture of honestly, respect, and inclusion by Taking the Pledge.

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