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Unconscious Bias: Our Filter Bubbles Shape Our Worldview

Joel Lesko
December 26, 2020

Filter bubble is a new term for the internet age. It was coined by internet activist Eli Pariser to describe a state of intellectual isolation that can result from internet searches that are personalized for you based on, for example, a Google algorithm that guesses what you’d like to see. It makes that guess by tracking what you’ve clicked on in the past so it shows you more of the same. 

The result of this filter bubble is that more and more, you see the articles and information you’re used to, that you’re comfortable with. Very quickly, your search results will no longer include information you haven’t chosen to look at and the result is that you won’t even have the opportunity to read or be exposed to information that disagrees with your viewpoint. This all serves to further isolate you.

Sound familiar?

This is exactly how our unconscious filters, our implicit biases work. Just like a Google algorithm that shows us web pages based on our previous clicks, our unconscious biases show us our pre-conceived, pre-loaded assumptions about the people and situations we encounter. Our internal filter bubbles shape our thoughts and behavior in significant ways. And here’s the dangerous thing - most of the time we don’t even consider that we’re being shaped by them.

So, here’s a question: When’s the last time you looked into your Google search settings to understand why the algorithm shows you why it presents the information it does? If you’re like me, the answer is never.

When it comes to our unconscious search algorithms, however, it’s critical that we explore them and make sure they continue to serve us. Why do we think, speak and behave the way we do when we meet and interact with people? Our unconscious search algorithms play a big role in our choices every minute of every day. In a team meeting. In an interaction that went south…. On and on.

Which leads to the photo above this blog. My wife gave me this brass statue as a birthday gift a few years ago. It immediately spoke to me and I look at it everyday. The photo may not show clearly, but the man is holding a frame with a glass plate. He looks out through this glass at the world, and the glass has distortions in it which, of course, distort his view of the world. 

What a metaphor! This statue helps remind me that I am looking out at the world through filters that have been installed into me. Filters that lead me to not only notice differences of race, gender, age, body size, and so many more, but to make immediate associations based on those differences.

In my work with organizations, via Unconscious Bias Workshops via Zoom (link) or our eLearning courses (link), I use this definition to start the conversation: An unconscious bias is an automatic assumption or belief about a person or a group of people based on one’s internal filters and judgments. These beliefs run beneath our conscious thoughts - they’re in our blind spot - where they can (and do) influence what we say and what we do

Much like the algorithm that’s showing you select information based on your preferences, your inner filters are bringing up automatic associations about people and situations that you learned throughout your life: from your family, your education, movies and TV shows, social media and all the billions of other inputs you’ve received. They’re all stored. Your filters are in place.

Back to the statue. One day, I was in a rush to pick up a pile of papers and I knocked it off the shelf. It fell hard, denting the frame and fracturing the glass plate. I was devastated. My first thought was to replace the glass. 

But then I thought about it some more and went back to the metaphor. I’m sure you’re way ahead of me here. Through this accident, the statue man got a perspective on his filters. The glass was shattered and he can see clearly without a filter. He can be more aware of the frame he’s looking through. 

Unlike the statue man, we can never be free of our filters, of our unconscious biases. If we have brains, we have biases. But, the good news is that our internal search filters can be refreshed with new information. You can be at choice whether your old assumptions about people, associations you make about people, still work for you. This is part of becoming more conscious, more mindful of your biases. So that the automatic association machine won’t isolate you and trigger you to say and do things that are hurtful to colleagues and others.

So, in the end, I decided to leave statue man with the broken glass plate, as a symbol of the ongoing work we all have to engage in. After all, diversity, equity and inclusion is not a destination, it’s a constantly evolving journey.

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