We frequently write about and discuss unconscious bias – what it is and how it impacts decision making. Unconscious bias generally refers to decisions and actions driven by impressions and understanding people have about the world around them. This is understanding that they’re not necessarily consciously aware of. Beneath the general umbrella term “unconscious bias” are a number of specific forms and sources of unconscious bias.
Understanding those individual elements not only helps develop a stronger grasp of the more general concept, but also provides more specific targets to focus on when attacking unconscious bias as a whole.
A Look at “Availability Bias”
The availability bias, or availability heuristic, is a great example of a specific form of unconscious bias. It’s a term you may not have heard previously. But a term that relates to a concept that you’ve almost certainly encountered or that you’ve personally been impacted by.
“The term was first coined in 1973 by Nobel-prize winning psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman,” writes Kendra Cherry in an article for Verywell Mind. “They suggested that the availability heuristic occurs unconsciously and operates under the principle that "if you can think of it, it must be important." Things that come to mind more easily are believed to be far more common and more accurate reflections of the real world. As Tversky and Kahneman explained, one of the most obvious examples of the availability heuristic in action is the impact of readily available examples.”
So how does the availability bias impact people generally and in business settings specifically?
Availability Bias in the Workplace
When it comes to people’s impressions of diverse groups, if one’s primary exposure to those groups is through news and media, rather than personal and professional interactions, those views are likely to be skewed based on the images that most readily come to mind.
Taking this to a business setting, the staff we interact with most frequently are likely to be the first that come to mind when thinking of new assignments and promotion opportunities. In both cases, business leaders need to consciously ensure they and their companies are getting ample exposure to diverse groups. Why? Because this exposure can help avoid unconsciously favoring those groups or individuals we’re most familiar with. Exposure leads to understanding. Taking steps to provide opportunities to understand those we don’t typically interact with can help to expand inclusivity.
Unconscious bias is a much-used term that generally encapsulates a number of specific forms of bias. Understanding the more nuanced concepts that fall under this broad umbrella – like availability bias – can help open up our eyes to the various ways we and those around us may be influenced.
Awareness leads to learning which, ultimately, leads to inclusion. Be inclusive!