What are unconcious biases and why do they matter for sustainability?

A bias is something, that we believe to be true, but in reality it might not be. These biases can relate to our own perception – how we see ourselves and how we think to see ourselves. They can also relate to how we see the world around us in relation to ourselves and how we think to see it relation to ourselves.

Does our own reflection hold true to what we believe is true? Who we think we are , whether what we enjoy, follow or do holds as good or bad? And if not, would rather believe so?

Biases can be harmful, if they lead us to making false ideas or assumptions about ourselves and others, but also if they support prejudices or stereotypes. Think about not “looking young enough” to be a reporter, or too old to try out something that could bring joy to oneself. – You are likely not too old and your qualities as reporter shouldn’t be determined by your age.

Now, we could think about getting rid of biases, but that is more difficult to do, because many of them are hiding in our unconciousness. This means that we are not aware of them, until we are made aware. Freud, the psychoanalyst, believes that most of our unconciousness is repressed and only through disinhibation, one finds what holds most true to themselves or can live a life most concious.

Because most biases are manifested deep within ourselves and thus, our environment, we are more likely to accept our biases, or even support as oppose to change them. – Change and awarness can be scary!

Making us aware of biases is difficult, because it changes the way we view ourselves and others. It can also make life or actions difficult, if awarness in unconcious biases lead to an understanding, that a situation needs to change, while there may be limited resources to do so. Resources can relate to emotional capacity, a support network , but also financial, technical or knwoledge capacity on a firm level. On the other hand, being aware of biases can support better decision making and because of that can help in creating valid opportunities for ourselves, businesses or societies.

What are some example for unconcious biases?

One of the most known biases is the “confirmation-bias“. It relates to a belief that you hold close i.e. believing that the product you bought or produced is sustainable. To confirm that, you are looking for a support network that verifies that. You’d less likely look for critiques, because you want your product to enter the market and stay there. For sustainability innovations, this can be a challange, because the system, in which the innovation is embedded has huge influences on its success or failure. While shoes made from recycled ocean plastic sounds great, plastic continuesly needs to be produced. On another note, an entrepreneur may think that technology only, will save the climate, when literacy in terms of language and technical vocabulary are just as important to run such innovation. Think about how many people in this world still don’t have access to education.

Another bias could be a belief or practice that has been followed for centuries, but does not hold true anymore. An example is the idea of it being normal to work 8-10 hours a day and that part-time work is only for parents or people in need. In reality, part time work can be for everyone. It gives more energy, time to be human and research from Denmark shows that people working 6 hour shifts are just as efficient; They are more happy , more productive and possibly more innovative.

Another bias might be cultural. An example is the perception that one can only find fullfillment in life, if one has a family, including a child and a house. In reality, this does hold not true, families can be diverse and different people can seek different types of fullfillment that holds true to their own beliefs and values. Even single parents can be great foster parents, but the perception still persist that a child needs ” two parents”. A consequence is that many children , who could have a loving “one parent” remain in the foster system.

One may also support a knowledge- bias; believing to know everything or believing that knowledge is fixed and not able to change. Most likely it is because science advances and different people have different forms of knowledge based on experiences, education and other valid factors. While in fact, carbon-neutrality is essential for this the human race to sustain, resolving war and other social conflicts, might as well be just as important.

Why do unconcious biases matter for sustainability?

Sustainability is more then CO2. It’s about a society that thrives, a society that promotes well-being and social justice, a society that can make concious choices and thus, lives to its fullest potential. This is only possible if biases are being made aware of. These biases can relate to businesses that aim at doing good, but may unconciously engage in social or greenwashing. They may also relate to consumers who cannot make accurate choices, because they believe in certain biases. Besides consumer and producer choices, biases can also support discrimination and other mental health discrepancies that can negatively effect the individual and society on short as well as long term.

Why should we be learning more about it?

With more attention and P&R being done around “Sustainability”, other just as important issues such as social injustice, prejudices or discrepancies between the rich and poor are regarded less. Removing more biases, or learning to explore them for ourselves and others, can help to create a society more critical, more prone to change, more likely to work together and more ready to thrive. [Of course it can also help to save governmental and business cost] 😉

Resources

Learnings and inspiration from my own psychoanalysis that follows Freuds method of exploring the unconciousness (and biases).

Emotions and Assumptions

Often a sentence is said or a statment is made that leads to frustration. Frustration as a “feeling” is of course okay. Likewise frustration can become a barrier if the feeling of it remains, if it is dealt with in silence and is later expressed in ways of anger. Anger then can become expressed in indirect ways such as gossip , withdrawl from work, dissatisfaction or loss of motivation. Anger can also be expressed in direct ways such as by making a statement very personal and likewise becoming very defensive or even insulting. Regardless of whether anger is internalized and indirectly or directly expressed, suppresing it and not being able to address what has been said and how one felt about it likely leads to another cascade of unsatisfying feelings and behaviours.

How can one statement create intensive feelings?

We might listen and understand an entire statement that has been made, but at the same time our brain creates a network of hidden messages that lie within each word said and therfore creates an automated desire for responses as another person speaks or writes. Because of that , a neutral statement made, can create an intensive emotional outburst (of coure not always) and therefore feelings of anger and frustration. A statement from a colleque that could be as basic as ” I saw you left home earlier yesterday” could be scandalous.

What do we base assumptions on and why?

Each of us is born and raised as an individual. That means that each of us learned to feel, to behave , to see, to react and to communicate differently. Because of that each brain is wired differently with different neuron-networks that manifast our knowledge and behaviours. This also means that each of us has different feelings and associations with specific words or “cues”. An example is that while someone has happy feelings related to home like “relaxing, cosy, loving, comfortable” someone else might have feelings such as “pressure, unhealthy relationships, colorless, sad”. Likewise, depending on the day, different associations might be made to home and the meaning given to it.

What causes overreaction? Because each of us has different experiences and different associations with a specific word, we can experience what has been said in different emotions. The statement ” I saw you left home earlier yesterday” could lead to a feeling of sadness or anger if the recevier of this message creats negative associations to each word. An example could be that this person needed to leave early in another job because of an emergency “at home” but was criticzed for that. Because of that this statement could re-create feelings of a situation in the past and therefore can cause distress and anger. Likewise another person might have had different or more positive experiences with “leaving early” or “home” and perceives the statement as neutral.

Think about the different x1-x9 being different words or phrases and h1-h9 being different experiences and feelings related to them. Y then represents our final reaction, or assumption that might be misleading to what was meant to begin with.

How can we reduce making assumptions?

  1. Listen carefuly to what has been said and think about what has been said exactly
  2. Think about how this statement made you feel.
  3. Then think about where these feelings are comming from.
  4. Are these feelings based on an experience in the past and if yes, how do they apply to the current situation?
  5. If you are unsure, you can also ask for clarifications and what is meant with a certain question or statement. This helps to see the others persons’ frame and intention can navigate away from previous made assumptions.
  6. Once it is clear what has been said, how your past might have framed you into thinking a specific way, its your time to respond (if you want to).

Is there such a thing as a proper response? There is no accurate way of responding and each response is context related. To me important is to understand your feelings and to communicate in such a way that it makes you feel most comfortable and the other person undertand;

  • If a question or a statement made you feel uncomfortable you can say so. ” I left earlier for personal reasons and prefer not to talk about it.”
  • You may explain why it made you feel uncomfortable. Sometimes this helps to create a mutual understanding. “I feel uncomfortable talking about it, because in the past I left earlier for work for an emergency and I got criticzed for it. I am worried it happens again.”
  • You may also ask for clarifications “Why did you ask me that? What exactly do you mean with that statement or question?”
  • You may also respond freely and express yourself how this question made you feel like ” I left home earlier because my brother needed help. Your question makes me feel …., because ……”

Emotions, assumptions and sustainability?

It is very easy to make assumptions or believe to “know something” based on past experiences (that’s quite natural to human survival), but sometimes we don’t know for sure and because of that engage in unhealthy beahviours. Again, that could be overconsumption, quitting a job or ending a relationship for the wrong reasons, being sad about something for weeks etc. . To understand and to address what we feel and why, can ultimately help us change a situation and create a new frame to benefit from.