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Unconscious Bias in the Interview

Newsletter • volume 2 • number 3

If you think you are impartial and open-minded, think again as unconscious bias may cloud your judgments far more than you realize. Research on how we form impressions about those we first meet suggests we do this much faster than we realize. That's the conclusion to be drawn from Dr. Jonathan Bargh's studies on the way emotional evaluations color our smallest perceptions. "There's nothing that's neutral," says Bargh, a psychologist at New York University and a pioneering researcher into how the brain processes information. "We have yet to find something the mind regards with complete impartiality . . ."

Reducing unconscious bias

Bargh's studies have convinced him that everything we encounter - no matter how fleeting or trivial - reaches the conscious mind with a value judgment already attached. In the past, scientists believed that our minds evaluated essentially neutral impressions, filling in these blanks with labels and opinions. But Bargh contends that every perception stimulates an instantaneous (within a quarter of a second), preconscious response that has nothing to do with thought or reason. "This is all part of the mind's perception and organization of information that goes on before it reaches awareness," says Bargh. "These judgments are lightning fast in the first moment of contact between the world and the mind." Furthermore, these unmediated evaluations set the tone, whether positive or negative, for the interactions that follow.

Unconscious bias in hiring

Before we consider unconscious bias in hiring, imagine you are introduced to someone at a party and your immediate reaction is one of dislike. You may avoid that person for the rest of the evening, although you may not be able to explain why. Bargh believes, however, that we can override unconscious bias and preferences simply by thinking about them. "Even if we have an automatic like or dislike of someone in the first moment, if you're aware of your bias and mull over what you think, that adds information that overrules the bias," he maintains.

Still, what about all those times when we don't "mull over" our initial impressions, but simply accept them as reliable judgments? The idea is alarming, particularly with regard to the interview situation, where interviewers have traditionally made critical decisions about applicants based on first impressions. Furthermore, Bargh's findings seem to have profound implications for such widespread social attitudes as ethnic and gender biases. But Bargh maintains that these biases can be overcome by thinking about them, just as other prejudices can be unlearned. "The more you think about an opinion, the weaker the influence of these unconscious biases," he claims.

Training for interviewers

We give participants in our Interviewing Today's Workforce® seminars a technique for avoiding unconscious bias in the interview. We show interviewers how to alter their thinking so that they can move through their "cultural comfort zone" and increase their objectivity. Bargh's research seems to confirm the importance and effectiveness of these techniques, and we are increasing the emphasis of unconscious bias training in our seminars.