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Overcome your unconscious bias

All of us acquire bias from our early upbringing and family backgrounds. Being aware of this is the first step towards overcoming it.


Radio talk on 4 February 2018. Posted 10 February 2018.

Relatively few people actively want to practice racial, religious, cultural or gender discrimination. Most people agree that it is wrong.

However we also harm others without realising it, due to having biases and preconceptions that we are not even aware of holding. This is known as "unconscious bias."

By understanding and overcoming your own unconscious bias, you will make the world a better place.

I made unconscious bias the theme of my 39th "Thought for the Week" on BBC Radio Manchester. You can read it below, followed by some more material on the subject.

Thought for the week

I have a riddle.

A father and son are out driving. Their car crashes, killing the father. An ambulance takes the badly injured son to the local hospital. In the operating theatre, the surgeon looks at the patient and says “I cannot operate on this patient. He is my son.”

Why did the surgeon say this?

I confess that the first time I heard this riddle, I failed. The riddle is designed to teach us about “unconscious bias.”

I learned about my own unconscious bias when I spoke at an international conference for the first time, 15 years ago. It was for the Institute of Chartered Accountants of the Caribbean. At the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Montego Bay, Jamaica. All-expenses-paid!

In the champagne reception on the first evening, I felt peculiarly off-balance. Despite not drinking! I realised that I felt strange because everybody attending the reception was either black or brown. All my previous life, in Britain the champagne receptions I attended mostly had white people, with the occasional ethnic minority.

It took me about 30 minutes chatting to people in that reception before it felt normal. I have never forgotten the experience. It showed the unconscious biases we absorb so easily.

The riddle was from an excellent BBC Radio 4 “Analysis” podcast about bias against women.

Afterwards, I studied the 100 Twitter accounts that I follow. As well as 14 organisations, I follow 81 men but only 5 women. Even allowing for the greater number of men in journalism, I think I am seriously guilty of unconscious bias.

Finally, the answer to the riddle. The surgeon was the son’s mother.


Like me, my wife and my sister also both failed the riddle when I posed it to them separately recently. This illustrates how widespread such unconscious gender bias is in our society.

Some resources on unconscious bias

There is of course a great deal of material available on the subject. I have listed just three items below.

Three minute video from The Royal Society on unconscious bias

The video mentions how all of us quickly classify strangers we meet into people we feel we have something in common with and "others." I discuss this further on my page "Why I wear a Union Jack lapel pin."

The Implicit Association Test

This is an online test on the Harvard University website. I completed it several years ago.

It is run by Project Implicit which is a non-profit organisation and international collaboration between researchers who are interested in implicit social cognition - thoughts and feelings outside of conscious awareness and control. The goal of the organisation is to educate the public about hidden biases and to provide a “virtual laboratory” for collecting data on the Internet.

Article from "The Atlantic" magazine

I was struck by the article "Is This How Discrimination Ends?" published on 7 May 2017, with the subtitle "Trainings and workshops geared toward eliminating people’s hidden prejudices are all the rage — but many don’t work. Now the psychologist who made the case for "implicit bias" wants to cure it."


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