CMO Momentum: How unconscious bias and stereotyping is costing marketers money and customers

Dr Jennifer Whelan speaks at CMO Momentum

In an era of increasing value being placed on customer experience and social responsibility, what can marketers do to ensure not only their organisations, but also their brands, are more inclusive and free from stereotypes and bias?

This was the topic undertaken by Dr Jennifer Whelan, founder and director of Psynapse Psychometrics, who spoke at the second annual CMO Momentum conference last week.

There are many reasons, the bottom-line included, for improving diversity and inclusion, both in organisations and for marketing, but because of how the brain works most people are unaware of their unconscious biases and are unwilling to change.

Even as late as 2017, Whelan said, men appear four times more often in ads, speak seven times more often and are 89 per cent more likely to be portrayed as smart. Women, Whelan added, are more likely to be substantially younger in advertising, 48 per cent more likely to be shown in a kitchen, and are five times more likely to be scantily clad.

While these figures are US-centric, she said it’s unlikely to be different in the Australian context, and this is because even when people think they are inclusive and unbiased, they are not because of the way they brain works.

“We all have unconscious bias,” Whelan explained.

“What is inclusion? It’s a culture that thinks of difference as an asset - not a bump to be homogenised or assimilated, but a valuable asset to be explored and leveraged. We don’t tend to do that, because we like to homogenise at the level of organisational culture and at the brain level.”

Humans essentially have two brains: A conscious brain and an unconscious brain. The conscious brain is deep, analytical, and sophisticated. But we can’t do all our thinking this way, because it would be too slow and some things need to be done quickly. The unconscious brain homogenises information and people because it’s quicker and easier to process information this way.

“To help process the world, we have an unconscious brain; it’s like an autopilot and pattern detector. It’s always sitting in the background and logging away the superficial details of stuff, and when it starts to see some patterns, it creates those patterns and wires them in,” Whelan said.

“It’s very quick, but it’s very superficial, and it doesn’t use much energy. Therefore, we tend to rely on this unconscious brain a lot, and we tend to rely on it for things it’s not very good at. Gut feel, first impressions, and intuition is what we tend to call this unconscious thinking.”

How this impacts diversity

This unconscious brain is a problem for diversity and inclusion. Because as much as we think we are egalitarian consciously, the unconscious brain does much of the thinking in the background, and tends to be ‘exclusionary by default’.

In an effort to make thinking more efficient and quick, it tends to screen out the differences and force people into patterns and generalisations, simply because it’s much quicker to do it that way.

“Despite our best intentions, unconscious bias bubbles away under the surface. There is a speed over accuracy trade-off,” she said.

This is why inclusion can be challenging, Whelan said, for three main reasons:

1. The status quo is sticky.

“The way we do things is familiar and comfortable, efficient, and when you multiply that across an organisation it can become very difficult to change things, and when we bring diverse people in, we want them to do things the way we do them.”

2. It also feels a lot more safe and reassuring to be in a room with like-minded individuals.

“When we are all on the same page, and we can get there a quicker. But this environment creates an echo chamber, and it becomes very difficult for new ideas to see the light of day.”

3. It can feel slower to undertake diverse decision making.

“The assumptions and quick-think generalisations we make in order for our brains to process information efficiently really get in the way when it comes to valuing difference.”

However, there are multiple reasons why the extra effort should be made to be more inclusive, and to get past unconscious biases and stereotypes.

“If you do inclusion properly, you are likely to get better organisational outcomes; people are happier, healthier, and more engaged. And, of course, performance is improved. Diversity is good for business,” Whelan said.

“Diverse teams communicate more, exchange more information, and they ask more questions. They are much more cognitively agile, and the collective intelligence lifts. We think harder, for longer, go deeper, uncover more information, stick with the problem longer, and generate more solutions.

“This is the sunk cost fallacy - the idea that the more invested you are in something the more loss averse you become, so you tend to work harder to get there.”

However, simply trying to be diverse without genuine inclusion will fail.

“If you bring difference into an organisational culture, but you do diversity without inclusion, your diverse people won’t stay very long, you’ll spend a lot of time trying to get more of them because diverse people don’t want to stay in a culture that requires conformity, and so your turnover increases, as will your costs.

“But the most costly aspect of diversity without inclusion is you’re washing out the value of the difference that you brought in in the first place by homogenising it.”

Another problem with the unconscious brain is stereotyping and the issue this causes both within organisations and for marketing.

“Your unconscious brain matches what you see with patterns you’ve already got. In this way, we tend to ‘match’ with people. We say they are ‘my kind of person’. We far prefer people who are like ourselves, and we are therefore more likely to like them, interact with them, and promote them in our organisations. Once we do, it’s almost impossible for us to be objective about their capabilities,” Whelan said.

“The next issue is confirmation bias. We tend to ask confirmatory questions, listen to confirmatory answers, which we then remember longer, rate as more credible, and we filter out unconfirmatory information. Confirmation bias gives us a tunnel view of life. But it feels good because we like to be right, and our views become firmer and more entrenched over time.

“We match social norms around groups of people, and this is the most common type of bias we have. We stereotype to simplify the world. We used to live in small clans, but now we live in complex societies and we can’t know everyone individually. We need a quick social filing system so when we meet someone we can know what to expect. So we make some generalisations and we don’t have to get to know them as an individual.”

The whole purpose of the stereotype is to put people in a category and stop there. And this affects marketing because stereotypes are seductive - it is the cheat sheet.

Humans tend to become very sensitive to stereotypical information, and they tend to screen out other information, so we think they are truer than they are. Stereotypes are much more seductive than logic and probability, which take too long and require effort.

“Our most prolific exposure to stereotypes comes from media, marketing, advertising. It starts early and it doesn’t change over time. There are a few reasons why the advertising and marketing industry presents this to people,” she said.

  1. Advertisers ping biases to persuade people of something and to make them more disposed to what the advertiser has to say.
  2. Advertisers use similarity biases and confirmation biases because it’s quicker and easier for people to process this information and respond more positively.
  3. People remember it and talk about it if they get information they expect.

Up next: How to think more inclusively

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