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Is unconscious bias, itself biased?

A doubled-edged sword? It is currently de rigeur to believe that people are largely driven by their unconscious, especially in their racist, gender and other beliefs that are not currently respectable.


Nigel Pocock


Yet this a two-edged sword, and one that could bounce back onto the person wielding it. For if all that we do is driven by the unconscious mind, then surely the way in which ‘unconscious bias’ operates, is itself unconscious? Is not the person accusing someone else of unconscious bias, themself biased?

The science?

In a recent (2021) paper, experimental psychologist Magda Osman (University of London) makes a number of very relevant points.

  1. Electrical brain activity can certainly be shown to be prior to an action, but it is simplistic to take this to mean that actions are all entirely driven by unconscious processes. Some actions may be, but the majority probably are the result of conscious decisions made earlier in life.
  2. Unconscious intuition can be extremely effective in complex problem-solving, provided the person has developed the neural networks that relate to the problem. Unconscious thought can rapidly synthesise ideas in a way that conscious thought cannot.
  3. We can therefore become conscious of the processes that influence our unconscious thinking. Some of these may be as basic as tiredness, hunger, stress, and prior beliefs and thinking. We can therefore counteract these biases by putting systems in place to do so.
  4. The IAT (Implicit Association Test) which is used to measure bias in employment, legal and medical decision-making, has poor reliability and validity. Tests and then retests often do not match.
  5. In conclusion, ‘more robust scientific evidence indicates that we are more likely governed by conscious thinking than by unconscious thinking.’ So, while there may be an unconscious stimulus towards a conscious decision, this is likely to have its origins in considered prior beliefs, reinforced by possibly years of practiced actions and attitudes.

Responsibility for one’s behaviour and values are therefore a matter of personal responsibility.

“Logical Indeterminacy Theory” provides a basis for demonstrating that freedom is real, provided a prediction is made that can then be refuted (or otherwise) when given to the individual about whom the prediction is made.

This is a form of falsification, again provided that the terms of the prediction are not so broad as to be meaningless.

The crucial thing is the new knowledge that is gained, and that growth in maturity is acquired―a ‘growth mindset’.

Rooted in humility and honesty, by definition, rather than pride and consequent cover-ups, especially in a way which uses unconscious bias as a tool (‘weaponised’) against any inconvenient opponent: “You think the way you do because of your unconscious white supremacist, bourgeoise upbringing. And that is why you’re opposed to me and all that I say!”

What is ‘bias’?

Being ‘value-free’ was shown to be untenable by anthropologist Mary Douglas, when she pointed out that even mathematics is not value-free.

Mathematics are practiced within a value-system. It is applied to making socially-affordable homes, labour-saving devices, medical technology―and weapons of mass destruction. No-one has ever existed within a value-free bubble.

Given that all people are embedded within a culture and an inventory of values, the question to ask is which values are most to be desired, and why? Clearly, values (and the interpretational reflexes they give rise to) are dependent on goals. These goals will be shaped by social policy, sub-cultural family values and structures, and media, all of which impact each other.


The only sensible conclusion, in this view, is that ‘unconscious bias’, is itself biased. However, being biased need not be a bad thing, provided one understands oneself and the nature of this bias.

Accountability is relative to self-understanding and self-consciousness.

If a mindset is fixed and closed, this is likely to represent a poverty of skills in problem-solving, especially new and novel ones.

Such a bias is pathological and socially unhelpful, since it prevents new solutions from being found. A tyrant cannot move on, whether individual or collective, or both.

Such people accuse others of unconscious bias, while failing to see the beam in their own eye. Let us therefore look at ourselves, and ask if we are merely accusing people, thereby ‘weaponising’ our notion of unconscious bias? If we are, then our closedness to truth is bouncing back on ourselves, and will destroy us. Is this the behaviour of a mature, prosocial person or culture?

(Photos: Pixabay)

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