Mental Shortcuts and Hidden Biases

May 11, 2023
one woman sitting behind a laptop looking skeptically at another woman

How might the world improve if we didn't make snap judgments about others? What if we endeavored to get to know the person, rather than making automatic assumptions based on our experience with people who look like them or come from a similar background? This may sound straightforward, but, when it comes to erasing bias, our brains are actively working against us.

Studies have shown that a human brain can process 11 million pieces of information every second, but most of it is not consciously absorbed. We can’t possibly sift through all that data, so we tend to take mental shortcuts. And, unfortunately, those mental shortcuts can lead to biases.

The Science Behind Bias

Our brain is designed to make quick judgments to keep us safe from potential threats (our reptilian brain at work) by using past experiences to predict future outcomes. However, this decision-making process can lead to biases when it comes to human interactions. For example, we might avoid interactions with people who look like someone who has hurt us in the past or automatically assume someone’s intelligence or trustworthiness based on their race or gender.

Moreover, we tend to rely on stereotypes when we have incomplete information, which can also lead to biases. Even well-intentioned people can hold biases, which can have a negative impact on others, in all types of business, across all industries.

Bias in the Workplace

Bias can be harmful in all areas of life, including the workplace. Bias can exist between leaders and employees or among team members, and it can bubble to the surface in many different ways. During the hiring process, for instance, an interviewer may be inclined to favor candidates who look like them or come from a similar background (known as similarity bias).

Another example: A leader might gravitate toward certain team members and ask for their opinions and input more often than others. That means those individuals’ voices will be unfairly amplified and will likely dominate meetings or decision-making.

Yet another example: During performance evaluations, managers might unconsciously give higher ratings to employees who fit certain stereotypes, such as being more assertive or confident, rather than evaluating them based on their actual performance.

These biases can lead to a less diverse and less inclusive workplace where individuals feel excluded and not valued. However, there are ways to overcome these biases and create a more equitable environment.

How to Overcome Biases

By acknowledging and understanding our mental shortcuts and hidden biases, we can take intentional steps to correct them and make more informed decisions. This includes educating ourselves on diversity and inclusion, implementing diverse hiring practices, and actively seeking out diverse perspectives and voices in decision-making processes.

Other steps the workplace can take to overcome inherent bias include:

  • Providing diversity and inclusion training for all employees and leaders
  • Creating a system for anonymous feedback and evaluation to reduce bias during performance reviews
  • Establishing clear criteria and guidelines for hiring and promotion decisions
  • Regularly examining and adjusting company policies and practices to ensure they promote equity and inclusivity
  • Encouraging open communication and dialogue among all team members to promote understanding and empathy for different perspectives


Mental shortcuts and hidden biases are a natural part of the human decision-making process, but these cognitive tendencies can have negative and hurtful consequences. To combat unconscious biases, it’s important to understand why they occur and how they can impact your work team. Once we acknowledge the potentially ugly effects of unconscious biases, we can work to dismantle them through education, training, and intentional actions. By actively creating equitable systems, we can create a workplace where all individuals feel valued and heard. It’s not easy to rewire someone’s mentality, but with time and commitment, it is absolutely possible.

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