The unconscious is making a comeback. Derided for decades as ridiculous and unscientific, pushing theories of psychoanalysis like penis envy and the Oedipal complex, the concept is returning through human resources departments and into the workplace.
The idea of unconscious bias originated in American social psychology departments two decades ago. It’s a therapeutic-sounding term for prejudice. Its focus was automatic, negative judgments made against blacks. Well known studies include the greater difficulty that resumes with ethnic sounding names had in securing interviews.
Programs teaching it to workers have swept the corporate world making it an $8 billion industry in America.
Anti-discrimination campaigners find it satisfying because it allows them to modify the more emotional language of racism or sexism with the cooler, business-friendly rhetoric for valuing workplace diversity.
But there is a problem. The theory is mostly wrong, particularly with regards to predicting behaviour.
Professor Phillip Tetlock of the Wharton School of Business says it is “difficult to find a psychological construct that is so popular yet so misunderstood and lacking in theoretical and practical payoff”.
When the Behavioural Economics Team in the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet applied the resume test with public sector workers in study published in June this year, the bias that emerged was in favour of minority groups and females. This is the very opposite of what theories of implicit bias predict.
Even the test’s creators, psychologists Mahzarin Banaji and Anthony Greenwald, admit that its findings had not been adequately validated before it caught fire in the public and workplace realm.
The theory of implicit or unconscious bias is a great example of questionable science being elevated to sacred status by virtue of the findings being politically attractive. It’s palatable, intuitively satisfying and a way for corporate leaders to signal that they’re serious about redressing inequalities.
It is also difficult to argue against something we are told we are not even aware of.
The CEO of JB Were Australia, Justin Greiner, cited unconscious bias as a reason to implement quotas to improve female representation in finance. The Law Society of NSW gave the issue front-cover status in its monthly publication in June, convinced it’s a key reason for the poor representation of women and ethnic groups in the top tiers of prestigious law firms.
Such initiatives are good intentioned. It makes sense that Australia’s skilled, English speaking and multicultural workforce has distinct advantages in the globalised economy, especially in engaging with the Asia Pacific. More can be done in better representing women and minority groups at senior levels. The ideal of meritocracy has its limits, especially when those with wealth and privilege access the tools of merit more readily.
But promoting unconscious bias with a religious fervour is misguided and misses the more sinister undercurrents of the movement. It is rooted in assumptions that a lack of ethnic or gender representation at all organisational levels is caused by institutional discrimination, that a person’s group membership determines their outlook and that current measures of merit are made by and for white males.
It paints a picture of the human being as an automaton to unseen power structures and fundamentally attacks the application of reason to decision making. It is anti-Western in that the theories are a veiled form of contempt for the individual.
But it is not easy to speak out against such movements that carry a feel-good quality. Just ask the fired Google executive, James Damore, who suggested the possibility of biological differences between the sexes as a factor in technical aptitudes for computing.
Mobilising social pressure
A major factor that sustains movements around diversity and other programs related to race and gender are what economist Timur Kanan calls “preference falsification”, which refers to the mobilisation of social pressure to have people publicly praise ideas which they privately disagree with.
Underground resentment is likely to grow when seen in combination with trends of “concept creep” which describe the steady dilution in the definitions of terms like trauma, abuse or prejudice. The justification is that it allows more people to fall within the medical net and potentially seek help, as is the case for addiction.
But as this dilution expands, illustrated by the popularising of terms like casual racism or sexism, the risk is a greater hypersensitivity in the workplace, intense linguistic policing and accusations of inappropriate behaviour becoming a growing weapon against rivals.
It’s important to better incorporate mass psychology and the irrational into our understanding of human behaviour. But while there are structural and cultural barriers influencing inequality, the answers do not lie in our unconscious.
Tanveer Ahmed is a psychiatrist and author of Fragile Nation.