Unconscious bias is more dangerous than cognitive bias

I often write about cognitive biases because they undermine decision making. If investors aren’t conscious to avoid sunk cost bias, confirmation bias and many other cognitive biases they will make bad decisions. Today I’ve had my thinking taken up a level by a post on brainpickings titled The Hidden Brain: How Ocean Currents Explain Our Unconscious Social Biases. Cognitive biases are actually a subset of all our unconscious biases and just as cognitive bias undermines decision making unconscious biases can undermine our behaviour by messing with the way we think about people of different gender, different race, from different social backgrounds and just about everything else.


This comment-reply from Mark Zuckerberg that got a lot of coverage earlier this week is remarkable because it shows he’s a nice guy, but also because he calls out Darlene’s (presumably) unconscious sexism. This is a relatively benign example of unconscious bias, but most other examples are more pernicious. Instinctive distrust of immigrants is a good example of a pernicious unconscious bias that’s currently causing all sorts of problems across Europe.

What’s worse is that globalisation is making our unconscious biases more dangerous. From brainpickings:

Unconscious biases have always dogged us, but multiple factors made them especially dangerous today. Globalization and technology, and the intersecting faultlines of religious extremism, economic upheaval, demographic change, and mass migration have amplified the effects of hidden biases. Our mental errors once affected only ourselves and those in our vicinity. Today, they affect people in distant lands and generations yet unborn.

All that is easy to say, but begs the question as to what we should do to minimise or eliminate the effects of unconscious bias. For many people, including Thinking Fast and Slow author Daniel Kahneman, the answer is to take judgement out of human hands by relying on statistics. Whilst that’s definitely helpful I feel it isn’t sufficient, and that somehow elevating society to a greater level of self awareness is what we should be aiming to do.