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Unconscious bias: What first responders need to know

28 Dec 2020 9:24 AM | International Public Safety Association (Administrator)

By Sarah Guenette, Learning & Development Manager, Calgary Community Standards, IPSA Mental Health Committee Member

There has been a lot of talk in the media recently around the issue of unconscious bias and many agencies are looking into training for their employees in how to recognize and mitigate unconscious bias. But what is it? And what does it mean for first responders?

What is bias?

Bias is defined as “a prejudice in favor of or against one thing, person, or group compared with another usually in a way that’s considered to be unfair. Biases may be held by an individual, group, or institution and can have negative or positive consequences”. Bias can be either conscious or unconscious (also known as explicit or implicit). Conscious bias is intentional, whereas unconscious bias is most of the time involuntary.

“Unconscious biases, otherwise known as implicit biases, are inherent or learned stereotypes about people that everyone forms without realizing it. Unconscious biases are social stereotypes about an individual, group or institution. Everyone has unconscious biases about various groups, and they are often not aligned with one’s conscious values”.

Due to the misalignment with conscious values, it takes some examination of your own reactions in different situations to analyze whether you are working under unconscious biases or not. Most people consciously do not want to think they are biased towards anyone. Often unconscious biases stem from childhood and are imbedded in the person so early on that they do not even consider them. In fact, biases originated as a way for humans to keep themselves safe, to be able to assess quickly whether someone else is a friend or an enemy. For prehistoric humans, the ability to judge someone else quickly could be a case of life or death.

Types of unconscious bias

Unconscious bias comes in many forms, including:

  • Affinity bias: Liking people who are just like you, whether that be through ethnicity, gender, education, background or any other number of factors.
  • Confirmation bias: Pre-conceived notions about someone and then seeking to find evidence to confirm that notion in interacting with them.
  • Effective heuristic: Judging someone by superficial attributes such as tattoos, hair color, weight or piercings.
  • Halo effect: Looking past someone’s flaws because you think they are a nice person.
  • Groupthink: Trying to fit in to a group to belong. This may cause individuals to walk away from their own identity and points of view.
  • Perception bias: Believing certain facts about a group of people which prevents assessing someone from that group based solely on their individual merits.

Bias in first responders

Looking at this list of specific types of bias, it is easy to see how some of these would creep in to the first responder realm without people being conscious of it even happening. Two types that would appear to be obvious include groupthink and perception bias.


Newly hired first responders want to fit in to the group. They are enthusiastic about their new position and often look up to the more experienced members. It could be easy to slip into the unconscious group think to fit in. That could potentially be a positive team building thing, making the new person one of us.

However, if that groupthink is based on negative biases towards others that can lead to toxic environments in the workplace and impact how responders react in certain situations.

Perception bias

Unconscious perception bias is probably the biggest obstacle for not only first responders, but for everyone in general. Animals, including human beings, are constantly receiving information about their surroundings and situations. That information is then analyzed based on knowledge and previous experiences and a perception is formed about what is going on. This is all done almost instantaneously and most of the time without any conscious thought being committed to it. People take in certain facts about a situation and decide what is going on.

Take this example provided by Gavin de Becker in his book The Gift of Fear: Survival Signals That Protect Us from Violence

“Imagine a man arriving for work one morning. He does not go in an unlocked front door, but instead goes around to a back entrance. When he sees someone ahead of him use a key to get in, he runs up and catches the door before it relocks. Once he is inside the building, he barely responds as a co-worker calls out, ‘The boss wants to see you’. ‘Yeah, I want to see him too,’ the man says quietly. He is carrying a gym bag, but it appears too heavy to contain just clothes.

Before going to his boss’s office, he stops in the locker room, reaches into the bag and pulls out a pistol. He takes a second handgun from the bag and conceals both of them beneath his coat. Now he looks for his boss.”

As de Becker points out, if the story stopped right here people reading it would have not only formed perceptions of this man in the story, but also predictions about what is going to happen next. This is because most people have preconceived notions about what it means when someone carries a firearm into their workplace and are looking for their boss.

However, if you add in the fact that the man in this story is a police detective reporting for duty it changes things considerably. A police officer could also commit workplace violence, but most people would assume that this detective is just getting ready for work. If the workplace in the story were instead a university or a post office this would change the perception yet again.

First responders have a disadvantage when trying to manage their own unconscious perception bias. They are often entering situations where they do not have all the facts to decide what is going on and this is where unconscious biases could appear. Since unconscious biases are deep rooted in our survival instinct, periods of stress and pressure tend to bring them to the forefront. These perception biases can be ingrained from experience in the first responder job role. The people and situations first responders encounter are mapped into certain categories in the responder’s mind, and sometimes there are only seconds to complete this assessment. Plus, it is done completely involuntarily by the responder.

Remember this is vastly different than conscious racism, sexism and homophobia. Most first responders have an accepting conscious belief system and would not consciously act on anything discriminatory. Everyone would agree there is no place in the first responder world for those who would consciously change their response to a citizen in crisis based on bias. The first responders that do that would warrant a much longer and in-depth article.

Addressing unconscious bias

There is no shame in having unconscious biases, everyone has them.

It would be incredibly challenging, if not impossible, to train people out of having unconscious biases since it is so embedded in the human condition. In the first responder world, the biggest step is to have an awareness that these biases exist. It would be beneficial for agencies to educate first responders on unconscious bias, what it is and how it can impact them in their day-to-day work.

Genuine self-reflection is the key to understanding unconscious bias. This could lead to a reduction in how often unconscious bias negatively impacts how first responders act in certain situations. The goal should not be to eliminate unconscious bias, but rather to mitigate it and its impacts on the way that first responders react.

If you are interested in seeing what unconscious biases you have, try taking Harvard University’s Implicit Association Test through Project Implicit.

Or you can ask yourself what pops into your head when you hear the following descriptions. Consider where those beliefs have come from.

About the Author

Sarah Guenette, M.A., is the Learning & Development Manager for Calgary Community Standards. She oversees recruit training and continuing education for 9-1-1 call evaluators, bylaw and animal officers, business licensing inspectors, livery inspectors and animal shelter services employees. Sarah has a background in 9-1-1 and was a call evaluator, dispatcher and operations manager for over 10 years. She has overseen the Psychological Health and Safety portfolio and the Peer Support team for Calgary Community Standards since 2013. She is passionate about creating and maintaining a healthy workplace for employees. Sarah is also the proud wife of a Calgary Police Service Officer.

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