Centre for Higher Education and Equity Research (CHEER)

Unconscious bias and implicit bias

We process a person’s ethnicity, gender, age and disability before we even know we’ve done it. At the same time we also link that person to all the supposed ‘knowledge’ we have of the category with which we have labelled them. The stereotypes and societal assumptions and personal experiences that have framed the category become linked to the individual.

In this TEDx talk, Helen Turnbull explains how we can recognise these biases and promote global diversity and inclusivity:

Unconscious bias is a term used to describe the associations that we hold which, despite being outside our conscious awareness, can have a significant influence on our attitudes and behaviour. Regardless of how fair minded we believe ourselves to be, most people have some degree of unconscious bias. The means that we automatically respond to others (eg people from different racial or ethnic groups) in positive or negative ways. These associations are difficult to override, regardless of whether we recognise them to be wrong, because they are deeply ingrained into our thinking and emotions. Acknowledging and taking responsibility for unconscious bias is not just a moral imperative, it is also financially and reputationally important. For HEIs, making biased decisions affects the recruitment and selection of staff and students, and the ability of those staff and students to achieve their full potential.

Implicit bias, on the other hand, comprises those views and opinions that we may not be aware of. They are evaluations that are automatically triggered when we encounter different people or situations, and commonly function without a person’s full awareness or control.1

As people are unable to control and manage their implicit attitudes and biases and cannot easily hide them in the same way as their explicit biases, they are seen as a more reliable measure of actual prejudice. Measures of implicit attitudes are often more reliable in predicting behaviour.2

Despite levels of explicit prejudice falling3, actual discrimination remains a continuing problem for many sections of society. Understanding implicit bias – what causes it, how it impacts decision making and what can be done to moderate it – is important if there is to be a narrowing of the gap between the ideals we aspire to and reality.

These quote from the HEIM interviews demonstrates the impact of unconscious bias on international researchers:

‘And then the other part of this is training current faculty, like, I don’t know how, but getting them to do work around their own prejudices and stereotypes and, you know, all the racial micro aggressions that we have to experience by our colleagues, you know, on a daily basis. Where they’re saying ridiculous, stupid things because they don’t know any better, you know, and yet after about a hundred times, you know, you kind of like…  You know after a hundred times of people thinking that I, for example, am the expert in every single culture just because I’m the only person of colour that people think I know everything about African Americans, I know everything about Latinos, I know everything about Asians. I’m like I have a tiny research agenda, just like you do.’ (Female, Guatemalan)

‘I think one big thing is a question of self-esteem because we are so few and we are, I mean… It happened to me personally many times you know that, your knowledge that you produce is questioned because it’s for some reason perceived as not being objective.’ (Female, Polish Roma)

Test yourself!

You can test your own implicit biases through Project Implicit, a non-profit organisation and international collaborative network of researchers investigating implicit social cognition.


  1. Greenwald, AG & Banaji, MR (1995) ‘Implicit social cognition: attitudes, self-esteem, and stereotypes’. Psychological Review 102(1): 4–27.
  2. Dovidio, JF, Kawakami, K, Johnson, C, Johnson, B & Howard, A (1997) ‘On the nature of prejudice: automatic and controlled processes’. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 33(5): 510–540.
  3. Abrams, D (2010) Processes of prejudice: theory, evidence and intervention. Equality and Human Rights Commission, London