Perceptions, ways of thinking, and judgments that take place unconsciously and automatically are called unconscious biases.

Learned values, opinions, and norms are unconsciously anchored and consolidated at an early age. Since childhood, we internalize distorted perceptual images. From this point on, we begin to assimilate them, resulting in erroneous distortions. Through this process, the brain tries to process and simplify the complexity and mass of the constantly available and incoming information. However, simplification involves the danger that often false patterns of perception emerge. The brain links perceived images with old familiar patterns, experiences, cultural imprints, and stereotypes. This mental shortcut serves to make decisions quickly and in a way that conserves resources. This biological process takes place unconsciously in everyone but leads to stereotypical patterns continuing to be internalized and reinforced.

Studies have shown that in certain groups specific people are associated as a threat. In the U.S., for example, it is black people, while in Germany it is primarily Muslims who are very often perceived as a threat. The experiment “Shooter’s Bias” shows how racial prejudices unconsciously control our behavior. In the simulation, the test subjects had to decide within a fraction of a second whether a person posed a threat or not.

But what constitutes danger and how clearly can it be classified? It turns out that skin color and the attribution to certain cultures have a clear influence on reaction time.  Black persons who are unarmed are nevertheless seen as a danger by the test persons. The disturbing thing is that these associations occur automatically, without subjects having had negative experiences with Black people themselves. Information is stored in a specific part of our brain, the amygdala, which is responsible for quick action. Our consciousness cannot intervene in this process of perception for the time being.

Everyone is susceptible to stereotypical images unless they directly and very explicitly address this phenomenon and learn how to deal with our unconscious prejudices. Regardless of gender, skin color, origin, or age, everyone has prejudices that are firmly anchored in our thought patterns. As a result, these thought patterns also rub off on our behavior. Our perception is determined by experiences, cultural imprints, judgments, and interpretations, which affect our actions and our thinking.

Now, one might think that it is not in our power to fight against these automatisms. But this is wrong. We are quite capable of breaking through certain ways of thinking and patterns of perception by making ourselves aware of them again and again and trying to unlearn them bit by bit.

Five steps to counter unconscious bias

  1. Acceptance

Every human being has unconscious prejudices. Our brain processes perceptions by drawing on experiences, cultural imprints, and stereotypes. This process runs automatically, without us being able to do anything about it at this stage. With awareness and knowledge of such mechanisms, we should first accept this fact as a first step.

Now it’s up to us to figure out when we tend to allow decisions and judgments to be made based on cognitive biases. External influences that affect their emotional world play a role here. Take-home message: Identify the situations, therefore, in which you tend to make stereotypical assumptions about certain groups or people.

1. Observation: What do you perceive visually?

2. Interpretation: How do you deal with these perceptions? What do you think about them and what do you associate with them?

3. Evaluation: What does this do to you? What feelings are evoked by what you see? How is your thinking and behavior affected?

These thought patterns must have developed at some point. The social, cultural, and societal environment has an influence on them.  Find out the origin of the thinking patterns. In doing so, it is important to question: “Where did I learn to react in this way?” and “What cultural and social aspects do I associate with certain values and norms?”.

By becoming aware of and reflecting on prejudices, we can go some way to counteracting these distortions of perception.  Even if these connections take place unconsciously in our heads, with the help of our knowledge we can train our brain to consciously make a correction.


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