the unconscious impact

April 1, 2019

Imagine you had to make an important career decision later today. You could be choosing your next mentor, approaching your next client, or hiring someone for a critical role on your team.

How much information would you need to feel confident in your ability to make a good decision? One hundred percent? Fifty? Twenty? Two?

How about just three ten-thousandths (0.0003) of one percent? That is one bit of information for every 275,000 available. What’s more, that 1-in-275,000 plays to your specific fears and reinforces what you already believe to be true.

Perhaps you are very confident and believe you can make a good decision with such limited information. But would you trust the people around you—your boss, your customers, your coworkers, a hiring manager—to make that decision for your career based on 0.0003 percent of the available information? Probably not. But they are doing just that, and so are you, every moment of the day.

the information your brain ignores

Your brain can handle about 11 million pieces of information per second. However, your conscious thought capacity is only 40 pieces per second.2 Think about the decisions you make in those seconds—where to sit, what to eat, whether to start a conversation with a stranger, what to say when you do.

Your brain considers what is relevant to you in the moment and discards everything else. Your brain cannot be everywhere at once. Instead, it tries to focus on what it perceives as important, interesting, or a potential threat. Every second of every day.

take your foot off the gas

What your brain does next is even more important to your decision-making process. The feeling part of the brain, the amygdala, reacts to those 11 million sensory inputs before the thinking part of the brain has time to respond. You feel before you think.

You may not know it, but unconscious bias affects you before your brain even knows what is happening. Don’t believe me? Imagine you are driving late at night down a deserted highway. You look up into your rearview mirror and see a police cruiser with its lights flashing.

What do you notice about yourself first? Maybe your heart starts racing, you start to sweat, and feel nervous. You have probably already taken your foot off the gas.

Then, you start wondering why you are being pulled over. Do you know what is happening here? Your brain starts making up a story to explain how you are feeling. You felt nervous first and then you try to find a reason for that feeling.

What happens when the police officer passes you and speeds on down the highway? Your mind says ‘whew!’ but your heart takes a few moments to stop pounding.

In other words, our feelings and gut reactions are in the driver’s seat, unless
we intervene.

understanding unconscious bias

Where do these first impressions and gut reactions come from? They come from deeply-held preferences for or against certain things. That is what bias is—preference for one thing over another. My brain is biased, and so is yours. Bias means preference. It is nothing to be ashamed of. We are hardwired for bias. Bias kept our species safe when we were primitive hunter-gatherers. We had to decide if each person we encountered was friend or foe. Knowing who was in our tribe and who was not was literally a split-second, life-or-death decision. Yet, despite all our cultural, social and intellectual adaptations, this biology still guides our thoughts and actions.


During childhood and adolescence, we begin to adopt the values and norms of the culture around us. We learn about values (what is right and what is wrong) as if they were universal truths. Because they are as commonplace as the air we breathe, we typically do not think to question or challenge them.

sense of self

As we develop physically, emotionally, and socially, we learn to shape our various characteristics into a sense of self, or social identity. This social identity is based on our experience in the world relative to other people: how strong we are, how we look, where we live, how we speak, how we dress or eat or worship or spend our free time. We form our sense of self based on those who are like us and those who are different. In part, we are basing our own identity on our perceptions of others.

perceiving others

As we firm up and fine-tune our sense of self, we also learn to make judgments—and I am using that word on purpose—about others. Even as we define ourselves relative to others, we evaluate others from the perspective of our own identities. We gauge others’ levels of success, virtue, worthiness not only against definitions we have created but also in relation to our own performance to that arbitrary standard.


But wait, there is more. We choose our experiences in ways that reinforce our identities and our perceptions of others. It becomes a vicious cycle. The less you vary your experiences, the more resolute you will be in your perceptions of others, and the more vested in your own identity.

Because our identities inform our choices and vice versa, we are constantly reinforcing, rather than challenging our values and identities with the decisions we make and experiences we choose. Over time, our biases become so central to our identities that we no longer consider them. These unconscious biases then drive our decisions and behaviors in ways we do not readily recognize.

We do not have to our limit ourselves in this way. We can choose to break out of this cycle. We can instead choose to make more rational—and therefore, better—decisions. We can choose to open ourselves to new perspectives, more varied experiences, and conflicting ideas. We can choose to explore, or try on, different values and identities. In other words, we can choose to grow. These conscious choices, rather than our gut reactions, are what make us leaders instead of followers, heroes of our own stories instead of victims of circumstance.

break the cycle of unconscious bias

Having the power to break out of unconscious bias is one thing. Wielding this power will not be easy. You will have to recognize your own biases, confront your assumptions, and challenge your beliefs. You may even have to change how you see yourself in order to see others in a new way. It requires honesty, integrity, and vulnerability. Remember, this is the work of leaders.

step 01: put yourself on notice

First, notice your own responses to people, ideas, situations, and changes. Especially when you are in a new situation, you may feel anxious or excited or scared. When you notice that your heart starts racing or you feel a little uncomfortable, notice it.

You do not have to dive into it in the moment. You do not have to judge, or critique, or feel guilty. But when you have time, ask yourself, “What caused me to feel that way?” Push yourself to think about which identities, experiences, values, or perceptions may have led you to this type of response.

Then, you can evaluate whether those feelings are rational. The more you can back away from irrational responses, the more intentionally you can respond. Just noticing, as if you were observing yourself in the wild, can make a big difference in how you respond over time. In other words, noticing your biases takes away their power over you.

step 02: observe the responses of others

Once you have begun to understand your own feelings and behaviors, you are ready to begin observing the responses of others. Again, I did not say to judge. Think about what identities, experiences, values, or perceptions may have led someone to this type of response.

step 03: press your pause button

Finally, press your pause button. Once you have practice with noticing and observing, it is time to break out your next tool: the pause button. This step allows you to think about other valid responses to situations, ideas, or people.

In his book Everyday Bias, Howard J Ross advises us to pause, which is his acronym for responding intentionally.3 When you can consider multiple responses, you can choose the best one for the situation at hand. Better responses lead to better decisions.

When I hear the word pause, I think of the pause button on a remote control. But where is the pause button on a person? As it happens, you have built-in pause button, called a philtrum or medial cleft. The philtrum is that little divot right under your nose.

Put your index finger on your newfound pause button. Do you look thoughtful and reflective? Good! You are well on your way! As an added bonus, pressing your pause button inhibits the flow of speech out of your mouth. This gives you time to take advantage of that precious space between stimulus and response.

When you are responding to a new situation, literally put your finger on your philtrum. Think for just a moment, and go through that mental database of all the possible responses you have observed. Only then, you can choose the best response for the situation. It will not be the same response every time; that is the whole point!



02 DiSalvo, David. Your Brain Sees Even When You Don’t, June 22, 2013. Accessed May 29, 2018. 

03 Ross, Howard J. Everyday Bias: Identifying and Navigating Unconscious Judgments in Our Daily Lives. Rowman & Littlefield, 2016 (116-117).