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Unconscious bias

'What is unconscious bias?' In this article we examine the concept of unconscious bias in the context of inclusive learning.
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© University of York

What is unconscious bias?

Unconscious bias refers to a process of categorising people and things, without being aware of it. It can have an impact on all areas of life, including our work, friendships and relationships. Unconscious biases can be present in individuals as well as when thinking about organisations, groups and teams.

Our own unconscious biases are informed by a range of factors, which can include anything from our background and personal experiences, to upbringing and cultural beliefs. While we may hope and believe that we are not biassed, our unconscious mind may still be influencing us, our actions and the way we see and interact with others.

‘Negative’ unconscious biases, can often lead to unintentional stereotyping or discrimination and so it is important that we are reflective and prepared to challenge ourselves, our assumptions and behaviour in order to address our own unconscious biases.

Why does the existence of unconscious bias amongst both staff and students present a barrier to inclusive learning/ communication/ discussions?

  • Unconscious bias can lead to unfair assumptions about and therefore treatment of, certain individuals or communities which excludes or marginalises the views, experiences and perspectives of that person or community.
  • The result of these biases may be to isolate yourself from certain groups with which the bias is associated with, and therefore not engage with the shared ideas, perspectives and experiences that those peers may hold.
  • Whilst presenting a barrier to enriching your own learning with these varying perspectives, another effect of this may be the direct exclusion of these peers in certain learning environments.

What can students do to try and address their unconscious biases?

  • Becoming reflective in our thinking can help us to recognise our own unconscious biases, and to understand how they might be affecting our decision-making, behaviour and interactions with others.
  • Being empathetic and open allows us to understand a wider range of perspectives, which can help us understand and challenge any assumptions or beliefs we may unconsciously be holding.
  • Developing our critical thinking and understanding of inclusive practice and its importance can help us commit to an on-going process of reflection and change.
© University of York
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