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Why Our "Unexamined" Biases May be the Most Damaging

These biases are often expressed in covert ways and can be particularly taxing

In this edition of Author Talks, McKinsey Global Publishing’s Raju Narisetti chats with Jessica Nordell, a science journalist and speaker, about her book, The End of Bias: A Beginning (Macmillan), which was reissued in an updated paperback edition in August 2022. Nordell has witnessed a rise in overt extremism and discriminatory sentiments over the past few years, but equally important, she says, are the subtle instances of prejudice that can be more cognitively taxing than clear-cut discrimination. An edited version of the conversation follows.

Why is it so critical to explore unconscious bias?

I’m the author of the book The End of Bias: A Beginning, which is now out in paperback. The book looks at how people, organizations, and cultures become less biased and less discriminatory, and what approaches allow them to become more fair and just. Why is it so critical to address unexamined or unconscious bias when we know that explicit prejudice is also extremely important? Well, both are critical. Both are extremely consequential and cause real harm in people’s lives—and, I argue, to society more broadly.

I think what people might be surprised to know is that the subtle, ambiguous, everyday bias that’s pervasive in organizations and workplaces—not to mention in education, healthcare, and public safety—is actually more detrimental to our performance than explicit bias. If we are in a workplace and are dealing with bias and discrimination that are hard to pin down—where there could be some plausible deniability, where we’re not sure exactly what’s happening—it’s a much bigger drain.

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