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8 Activities to Explore Unconscious Bias

Understanding Unconscious Bias

 

Unconscious bias refers to the automatic and often unintentional associations or judgements we make about others based on their race, gender, age, or other characteristics. These biases can influence our behaviour and decisions without us even realising, affecting everything from hiring practices to daily interactions. Engaging in activities that explore and address unconscious bias is crucial for fostering a more inclusive and equitable environment.

Unconscious bias training helps individuals recognise and mitigate these hidden biases. By participating in various activities, we can uncover our implicit associations and work towards reducing their impact. Whether through the Implicit Association Test or other interactive group exercises like the ones we’ve outlined in this post, these activities provide valuable insights into how biases shape our perceptions and actions.

The following activities are designed to explore unconscious bias in a fun and engaging way. They can be used as part of unconscious bias training to facilitate discussions and reflections on how these biases influence our behaviour.

Let’s dive into these activities and discover how they can help us build more inclusive communities!

 

In this post…

 

Classic Unconscious Bias

 

Do you know this story?

A man and his son are driving in a car one day when they get into a fatal accident. The man is killed instantly. The boy is knocked unconscious. He is still alive and is rushed to the hospital for immediate surgery. The doctor enters the emergency room, looks at the boy, and says, “I can’t operate on this boy, he is my son.”

Wait. What?

How can this happen?

 

It’s the Result of Classic Unconscious Bias

 

The fact that some of us struggle to make sense of this story illustrates just how pervasive our biases are.

To be clear, the doctor is the boy’s mother.

Bang!

Is it possible that you struggled with this story because you imagined (assumed) the doctor to be a male? You are not alone. Indeed, I would suggest that most people — men and women — envisioned a male doctor entering the emergency room. Such is the hidden influence of unconscious bias.

 

Exploring a Real Story of Bias

 

Another quick story, this time real.

It is not unusual for heads of state to furnish the background of their press conferences with the presence of their national flag. Such has been the case in Australia for more than 100 years. Then, in the very first press conference held by the new Australian Prime Minister this year, three flags appeared – the traditional Australian flag in the centre flanked by two flags representing the indigenous cultures of our nation. This had never occurred before, yet it made immediate sense because the new Australian government had committed to embracing indigenous voice and culture as part of their new parliament.

Now, as exciting (and long overdue) as the presence of these two indigenous flags is, their appearance for the first time marked an uncomfortable (and unconscious) bias many people in the Australian community (including me) have entertained for a long time — their absence. It never occurred to me that the flags were missing, until they appeared. I was unconscious of this bias until it slapped me in the face.

Of course, there are many, many more real stories of unconscious bias that impact people all over the world in very serious ways. In no way do these simple stories intend to downplay the significance of these issues. Rather, I want to inspire you to consider ways in which experiential activities and their careful sequencing can facilitate conversations to explore these very real problems.

 

The Different Types of Unconscious Biases

 

There are many types of unconscious bias, and, unfortunately, not all of them are easy to detect. Understanding the different kinds that exist and how they may affect your judgement is the first step toward reducing their impact.

Let’s explore some common examples that can often influence our behaviour and decisions without us even noticing:

  • Affinity Bias: Our tendency to favour people who share similar interests, backgrounds, or experiences to our own.
  • Gender Bias: The unconscious preference for one gender over another. This is most often seen in hiring practices and workplace interactions.
  • Group Bias: The inclination to support or prefer members of our own group while being critical of those in other or new groups.
  • Similarity Bias: Favouring individuals who we perceive as being like ourselves, which can limit diverse perspectives.
  • Implicit Association: The automatic association we make between certain qualities and particular groups.
  • Language Bias: Preferences based on someone’s native language or accent, which can affect communication and collaboration in diverse teams.
  • Sexual Orientation Bias: The unconscious attitudes or stereotypes about people based on their sexual orientation, impacting inclusion and fairness.
  • Confirmation Bias: The tendency to search for, interpret, and remember information that confirms our pre-existing beliefs.
  • Halo Effect: The bias where our overall impression of a person influences how we feel and think about their character.
  • Horns Effect: The tendency to allow one negative trait to overshadow all other traits of a person.

 

There Are Many Unconscious Bias Activity Possibilities

 

The stories I mentioned earlier, and so many more, were the focus of a recent conversation I had with a member who was eager to learn a bunch of activities that they could adapt to help their group explore and discuss the impacts of unconscious bias in their workplace.

As you may already know, there is no specific attribute in the playmeo activity database that is dedicated to this particular issue. So, our time was spent looking at many activities that can be or are influenced by bias in simple ways.

In addition to the story of the man and boy above, we agreed that the following activities could be powerful catalysts for conversations about bias, too:

 

Unconscious Bias Icebreaker Activities

 

Five Clues

Each participant secretly writes five little-known facts or clues about themselves on a blank index card and signs their name at the bottom. Collect and shuffle all the cards, then challenge the room to identify the person on the card using as few clues as possible. Read one clue at a time, and award points whoever guesses correctly. Continue until all cards have been identified. This activity helps uncover hidden assumptions and biases in a way that’s fun and interactive.

Who Am I?

Each participant writes the name of a famous person or character on a sticky note and places it on another participant’s forehead. Everyone then asks yes or no questions to figure out their identity. This game highlights how quickly we can jump to conclusions based on limited information.

 

Unconscious Bias Group Activities

 

Culture Shock

This short, no-prop activity very quickly illustrates the impact of assumptions on the relationships of those around us. The exercise invites three groups of people to interact and communicate in a particular manner with all others. Chaos ensues which provides a number of experiences to share, understand and reflect upon.

Bank Robbery

Once again, this team-based puzzle presents a series of facts that, for the most part, group members will overlay with a set of assumptions. Your group’s objective is to identify who robbed the bank, and of course, it’s not who your group expects it to be. Bias, once again, plays a big role in influencing the decision-making processes of the group.

If Then

Form groups consisting of a few people, or form pairs. Invite one person to say a sentence that starts with the word “IF…,” for example, “If you lost your car keys…” Instruct their partner to respond by saying “THEN…” and completing the sentence, like “…then I would have to walk to work.” Repeat this two or more times, and then swap roles. This activity underscores how our immediate responses can reveal underlying biases and assumptions.

 

Unconscious Bias Workplace Activities

 

Minute Mysteries

A large number of these lateral thinking puzzles are ideally suited to highlighting the presence of biases. For example, consider this scenario: Romeo and Juliet are found dead lying on the floor in a pool of water. What happened? As with all Minute Mysteries, your group is then invited to ask a series of questions to solve the mystery of how Romeo and Juliet died. Spoiler Alert – I bet you immediately thought of the Shakespearean characters, right? Wrong. They are goldfish, and their tank broke causing them to fall to the floor and die. The key here (your job) is to transfer what your group learns from this (fictional) experience to the real world.

Crumpled

Distribute a sheet of paper and pen to each person in your group. Invite each person to focus on a particular experience that frustrates them, makes them angry, or causes them concern. Ask each person to write this experience on their paper in as few words as possible. When ready, ask everyone to crumple the sheet of paper into a ball.

Immediately, or at a later point, ask each person to open the crumpled paper and flatten it as much as possible. Using whatever pens, markers, and/or craft materials you have available, ask each person to transform their paper into something new, such as adding a doodle, colouring it in, or folding it into something. When ready, invite one or more members of your group to share what they created. This activity demonstrates how reframing our experiences can help personally reduce bias and foster a more positive outlook.

Accepting Yourself

Schedule this exercise after a significant, possibly lengthy program experience. Distribute one Accepting Yourself worksheet to each person. Invite each person to complete the first section of the worksheet (allow 10 minutes). When ready, invite one person to start by sharing their thoughts on the first section. Next, invite the rest of your group to share any additional strengths they see in this person. Ask a volunteer to record these extra thoughts and affirmations on the individual’s worksheet so they may be present to the feedback from others. This process helps individuals see themselves through the eyes of others, reducing inner biases and building self-acceptance.

 

For something a little different, take a look at Juliana Mosley’s TED Talk which I featured in a blog post last year that explores cultural humility, the ability of a person to make unconscious prejudice, biases, or preconceived notions conscious. It’s well worth the 17-minute view.

Finally, what activities do you know that could highlight unconscious bias?

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