5 Examples of Unconscious Bias

Everyone has unconscious biases. They are unintentional, learned stereotypes and attitudes that can be positive or negative. Experts believe unconscious biases are a result of evolution. Our brains can only consciously process about 40 pieces of information a second, but we can process 11 million unconsciously. This unconscious processing saves us time. However, accuracy suffers when we take these mental shortcuts. Unconscious biases can lead to inaccurate – and even harmful – judgments of people and situations. Biases affect all our decisions and behaviors. By becoming aware of them, you can be more objective and accurate in your assessment of the world and those around you. Here are five examples of unconscious bias:

Gender bias

Gender bias is the belief that there are definitive male and female personality traits. Women are expected to be emotional, compassionate, and willing to defer to men. Men are expected to be confident, logical, and authoritative. These stereotypes are harmful to everyone, especially since science shows that gender is not binary. Even sex, which is not interchangeable with gender, exists on a spectrum.

How does gender bias play out? Those with “feminine” traits are often talked over in the workplace, discriminated against through laws, and dismissed because they’re “too emotional.” Those who identify as men and who possess “masculine” traits are treated with more respect and praised for their confidence. However, if someone does not identify as a man but demonstrates “masculine” traits, they’re often seen as loud, bossy, or arrogant. This is especially true for ambitious women in leadership.

The halo/horn effect

The halo/horn effect is the unconscious bias that encapsulates why first impressions matter. When we meet someone for the first time and they make a good impression, we start to see them with a halo. This can mean we overlook their flaws later on or treat them better than others. We’re willing to cut them lots of slack because we see them through rose-tinted glasses.

On the other hand, if someone makes a poor first impression, we see them with a horn, as in, a devil horn. We may criticize them more harshly and hold them to a higher standard than everyone else. We look at everything they do through a muddy lens. It’s human nature to make fast judgments. It’s part of our survival instinct to quickly decide if someone is a threat or not. The world is different now, though, and the halo/horn effect usually causes more harm than good. It can lead us to miss red flags and treat others unfairly.

Confirmation bias

Confirmation bias is one of the most influential unconscious biases humans possess. It applies to decision-making and taking in new information. To support a decision or viewpoint, we go looking for information. We may tell ourselves that we’re interested in information “from both sides,” but confirmation bias leads us to dismiss any information that doesn’t support our views. To justify this dismissal, we may have reasons that seem logical, but people often do not consider that confirmation bias may be the real cause.

If we aren’t aware of our bias, it becomes extremely difficult – if not impossible – to be objective and truly listen to opposing viewpoints and information. This prevents us from growing and improving whether it’s in our work or personal lives.

Attribution bias

This unconscious bias has to do with how we judge situations. Attribution bias manifests in a handful of ways. If something good happens in our lives, we are likely to believe it’s because of something we did. If something bad happens, however, we’re quick to blame external factors and shift responsibility from our actions. When it comes to other people, the bias switches. When something good happens to them, we call it good luck. If something bad happens, we believe they did something wrong.

Attribution bias also pops up when someone does something that negatively affects us. We often immediately assume it was intentional and attribute the event to the person’s character rather than something external. Attribution bias makes it difficult to analyze situations realistically and objectively.

Conformity bias

This unconscious bias most likely originated during our hunting-and-gathering phase way back in the day. Working together and living in peace was essential for survival. If a person fought with their group, they would be on their own for food and safety. Being a part of the group – conforming – meant survival. That behavior still exists in humans today. We tend to conform to the will and views of the group, even if it means going against our own convictions and staying silent when we disagree.

Giving in to peer pressure is a clear example of this bias at work. While conforming can mean harmony, it also creates bubbles where diversity of thought and healthy disagreement aren’t welcome. This can make groups a hotbed of harmful behaviors. Cults, which demand total conformity, are an extreme example of how dangerous this bias can become.

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About the author

Emmaline Soken-Huberty

Emmaline Soken-Huberty is a freelance writer based in Portland, Oregon. She started to become interested in human rights while attending college, eventually getting a concentration in human rights and humanitarianism. LGBTQ+ rights, women’s rights, and climate change are of special concern to her. In her spare time, she can be found reading or enjoying Oregon’s natural beauty with her husband and dog.