Unconscious Bias

This article helps to unearth a cultural issue that each individual needs to address on a personal level. Bias is an enemy to productive conversation.

TSQL Tuesday

There is a lot of commotion in the world today. So much so, that it is a good time to pause and perform a little introspection. What better time to perform this analysis than as part of a group think collaborative exercise called TSQLTuesday?

This party, that was started by Adam Machanic, has now been going for long enough that changes have happened (such as Steve Jones (b | t) managing it now). For a nice long read, you can find a nice roundup of all TSQLTuesdays over here.

This month, the blog party is somewhat about memories, reflection and posterity. Tamera Clark (b | t) is trying to escape the planet and would like for each of us to help create a “time capsule” of important things to take on this journey. The items we choose to put in the time capsule are entirely our choice.

For me, a time capsule usually contains something important and relevant to the time period. I have found that people will usually put relics, artifacts, writings of their personal thoughts, or clippings from newspapers of relevant current events. My contribution will hopefully be more of a nod to the current events mashed together with my ruminations. You can find the invite from Tamera – here.

No matter who we are, how we are raised, or where we live, we all have various biases. Having bias is not a bad thing. Bias can be a very useful tool when recognized and used properly. Many times we don’t even realize we have a bias towards something – this is called unconscious bias. This is a bias that helps to form us as a person – good or bad.

Unconscious Biasan automatic, mental shortcut used to process information and make decisions quickly.


Many months ago, I attended a keynote presentation where the topic was diversity, inclusion, and bias. The speaker was Dr. Susan R. Madsen and she is a significant force internationally for better inclusion and diversity. Since that session, I have had this topic on my mind and the more we see social issues arise worldwide, the more I feel the need to write the article as this would be an ideal topic to include in the time capsule. Never mind the fact that it is an excellent topic for everybody now!

During that session, we learned about prejudices and how instant a judgement can be made and it doesn’t even have to reach the conscious level. Part of this reason is the onslaught of data that comes into the brain at any given moment. During the presentation, Dr. Madsen noted that we encounter 11 million bits of information at any given moment. Of that quantity, only 40-50 is absorbed by the brain for processing. A paltry 5-7 bits makes it to our consciousness, and into memory.

This claim is further supported by Dr. Karolien Notebaert who is the CEO of One-Step Ahead, a neuroscience consulting firm when she said this “Every second, we receive about 11 million pieces of information. Only 50 are captured by our brain with just 7 of those processed by our working memory.” This information can be visualized as follows:

What does this mean and what is the point? Well, let’s try a story to help illustrate how this bias might apply.

Set yourself in the scene of the boarding area at a crowded terminal waiting to board a plane. You notice two attractive young women in stilettos, leis, form fitting short skirts and attire, and blonde hair being somewhat loud and exuberantly drinking a couple adult beverages.

With this limited amount of data you were able to commit to memory, you have just made a judgement about these two women. The judgement may be positive or negative, and it all kind of depends on some additional factors we will get to in a bit. That said, what was your impression of these women? What was your judgement? Think about that for a bit!

After boarding the flight and getting settled into your seat, you notice the same two women board still being jovial. The pass by you and sit somewhere near the back of the plane continuing their excited conversation. Thirty minutes into your flight there is some commotion a few seats in front of you. The flight attendant makes a request over the speaker system asking for a doctor. Next thing you notice is one of the blonde haired jovial women calmly and coolly reviving a passenger. It turns out she was a surgeon.

How did your prejudgment match with who this woman turned out to be? We all make quick judgments based on information we gather and the natural filtering process of the brain. I am not saying this is an excuse for poor bias, just stating that it helps to explain some of it and knowing this gives us an important tool in helping to reshape our own personal biases and character.

This is called unconscious bias. We all have them. These biases come from many different factors such as environment, experience, beliefs, and so forth. Knowing this can help us reshape the biases. The unconscious bias is not to be confused with a conscious bias.

For instance, a conscious bias that I have, deals with laziness. People that do not give a good effort, do not work hard, do not try to better themselves, or make excuses causes me to make a judgement about that person that I don’t want to work with that person because they don’t care anyway. This is a learned response and is something I try to work on to be more compassionate.

From time to time in the SQL community we see stark reminders of bias in action. Some of the bias is conscious bias and some of it, I have to believe and hope, is unconscious bias. Bias causes heart ache and problems everywhere. For me, all that matters on the job is if you can do the job and that you put in the time to make yourself better at the job. Everything else is irrelevant when it comes to your ability as a professional imo.

When you allow for your biases to boil up, it can cause a whole slew of problems. Why do you have that bias? Does your bias have any real bearing on the quality of that person or the way you should be seeing them? Allowing this to happen turns your mentality into “me vs. them” and has no productive bearing on life (socially or professionally).

Now that you know you have unconscious biases, I recommend you work to start recognizing those biases. A bias can be alternatively explained in this way:

“We don’t see things as they are. We see things as we are.” Anais Nin

We don’t have time to rethink every decision during a day nor to review every bit of information that is flowing at us. However, we can learn to recognize when something might be a bit of a bias and rethink that. We can start focusing on a little more introspection as we work to become more tolerant and inclusive of everybody.

Wrapping it Up

This article helps to unearth a cultural issue in our day and time that each individual needs to address on a personal level. Bias is an enemy to productive conversation and collaboration. We need to recognize the biases we hold and work to change them for the betterment of humanity and the SQL Community.

Stupidity and unconscious bias often work more damage than venality.” – Bertrand Russell

Feel free to explore some of the other TSQL Tuesday posts I have written.

If you are in need of a little tune-up for your XE skills, I recommend reading a bit on Extended Events to get up to date. For some “back to basics” related articles, feel free to read here.

2 thoughts on “Unconscious Bias”

  1. Found this article in my inbox this morning with my SQL Server Central daily email update. It’s very sad to see the social justice warriors invading all aspects of society – including a tech blog such as this. The issue of bias is real. The issue of unconscious bias is being manipulated by several of the people you mention in your article to assume some people are bad and must be re-educated. It’s great that you feel you have white privilege that you must atone for but not all people have the same shame over an innate a demographic feature they had no control over. Congrats on your self-expression and freedom of speech. But this reader believes you are pushing an agenda that is destructive to society and takes away from whatever technology related point you were trying to make by writing this piece.

    1. I worry for you in that you assume I have any sort of white privilege. I believe you missed the entire point of the article and you need to have some personal self-reflection. There is an exceptional amount of bias in the SQL Community and much of it is not intentional and is rather unintentional. Much of this unintentional / unconscious bias is misinterpreted and shamed and it shouldn’t be. Just as you just shamed me for talking about unconscious bias. Shame on you for being so pithy as to denigrate a real issue in the SQL Community and to accuse me of something that is woefully wrong. Not one iota of this article is about white privilege yet you went there. That is pitiful. How about you go and re-read the article and then flog yourself for all of the intentional bias you obviously hold.

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