It is much easier to see unconscious bias in others, simply because we are not conscious of our own bias.

As scientists we all rely on the power of our brains to help us to make sense of data and as humans our brains are obviously integral in making sense of the world around us. Every day our brains process large amounts of information. To do this effectively the brain develops short cuts. These are based on our past experiences, as well as cultural norms and stereotypes. These shortcuts are processed unconsciously and therefore happen much faster than our conscious thoughts.

These shortcuts are very helpful. For example if we meet a friend we can quickly ascertain his mood. This is fast thinking.

Some information requires the slow pro- cessing. If you carry out the following calculation “19 x 36 =” you will notice there is a perceivable effort. The answer does not spring to mind unconsciously. As this takes effort wherever possible the brain will operate using fast thinking, leaving this effortful, conscious, slower thinking for more important or complex tasks.

Fast thinking can lead to us making assumptions in situations and about people. Whilst these are essential to daily living, sometimes the brain works too fast, leadng to mistakes. For example if you hear the word parent, or engineer what image comes to mind?

Rather than view each person we meet as an individual we make assumptions about them and these are unconscious and are based on stereotypes, our cultural environment and our personal internal landscape. This can result in subtle and unconscious bias, which affects both our high level thinking and smaller more subtle behaviours.

In our workshop in Kandesteg at the 2nd NCCR RNA & Disease annual retreat we demonstrated the brain’s lazy processing with many participants failing to answer correctly a simple calculation because of assumptions about what they thought they saw or heard about the starting point. Much research has shown positive effects of diversity on teams and organisations. The group explored their usual group of friends/advisors in a work context for diversity, crossing out those who were most like them to find out the diversity of advice and help that they may be experiencing.

Detecting bias

It is much easier to see unconscious bias in others, simply because we are not conscious of our own bias. To find out more about your own biases take the Implicit Association Test

You can also monitor your own thinking and speech:

  • Notice the justifications you use for decisions, particularly those about other people.
  • If you seem to put a lot of effort into your justification it could be you are digging yourself out of a bias-induced hole.

Mitigating bias

  • Become aware of your biases and take responsibility for them
  • Widen your experience of people unlike you (expand your in-group)
  • Use slow thinking to reflect on how you would feel in any given biased situation and make reasoned arguments against your own decisions
  • Identify common ground with people unlike you
  • Read the reference works below and watch the Royal Society video


Royal Society Video
Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People, Mahzarin Banaji & Anthony Greenwald
Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman
Inclusion Nudges, Tinna Neilsen & Lisa Kepinski
3 Keys to Defeating Unconscious Bias, Sondra Thiederman
Dr. Sue Hewitt, develomenta, Denbigh, UK / Mail:

By Roland Fischer