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What is Unconscious Bias?


Unconscious biases are beliefs, attitudes, and assumptions that form automatically; an individual’s personal life experiences and natural human cognitive limitationsUnconscious Bias written on chalkboard inform these, so they may be inaccurate or incomplete, which can result in a pattern of unintended marginalization of people from certain groups.

Unconscious biases may be one barrier, among many, to an inclusive and equitable workplace climate and, therefore, a barrier to leveraging the benefits of a diverse organization. The volatile, complex, and uncertain environments of future threats require cognitive diversity across the DoD (e.g., DoD Board on D&I, 2020; Holt & Davis, 2022). The U.S. Secretary of Defense issued a memorandum, Immediate Actions to Address Diversity and Inclusion and Equal Opportunity in the Military Services, dated July 14, 2020, specifying that “Addressing racial prejudice and bias within the force requires a combination of ongoing skill development, leadership, and accountability” (Esper, 2020, p.2)



Behavior Cues


  • Stop/No Symbol with Raised PalmFreezing
  • Avoidance
  • Overcompensation
  • Discomfort
  • Anxiety
  • Fear
  • Facial expressions
  • Tone of voice
  • Posture
  • Word choice
  • Speech disruptions

Risk Factors


Targets of Bias

1. Minority Stress - Prejudice and discrimination, intentional or unintentional, are fundamental causes of negative health outcomes for minority group members (Williams et al., 2019).
2. Alienation - Leaders’ biased decision making can damage morale by making members feel alienated. (Williams & Nida, 2011).
3. Pressure to Conform to the Majority - The effects of unconscious bias are particularly impactful for low-ranking individuals from demographic minority groups. These members experience much higher pressure than their non-minority colleagues to self-monitor, assimilate, and socially conform as prerequisites for professional advancement (Anderson & Gustafsberg, 1999; Ely, 1995; Hewlin, 2009; Phillips et al., 2009).
4. Coping with Bias - In the face of real or perceived bias or discrimination, one coping strategy employed by stigmatized group members is psychological disengagement, “a defensive detachment of self-esteem from outcomes in a particular domain, such that feelings of self-worth are not dependent on successes or failures in that domain” (Major et al., 1998, p. 35).

Those Who Employ Bias

1. Interaction Anxiety, Discomfort - Even individuals who value being non-prejudiced can unwittingly experience prejudicial thoughts, discomfort, anxiety, or even fear when interacting with others who represent socially stigmatized groups (Devine, 2015).
2. Micro-behaviors, including Micro-affirmations / Micro-aggressions (Incivilities) - Micro-behaviors are subtle statements or gestures that people often do unconsciously but that convey important underlying meaning to an observer or recipient, including impacts that can damage interpersonal trust. (Lim et al., 2008; Williams, 2021).
3. Impaired Decision Making - Unconscious biases can be a type of logical fallacy when they are based on pre-existing beliefs, attitudes, and assumptions about people and groups that people (bias holders) apply to pre-judge others (bias targets) in the absence of direct personal experience or individual information about the targets (e.g., stereotypes). (e.g., Devine, 2015).
4. Fundamental Attribution Error (FAE) and Ultimate Attribution Error (UAE) - The fundamental attribution error (FAE) is a term used to describe people’s failure to recognize the external circumstances that drive human behavior or people’s tendency to underestimate the degree to which external causes influence individual behavior. (Pettigrew, 1979). 

Impact on Groups and Organizations

1. Unit Level - Unconscious biases may drive disengagement and stagnation, and directly impact the unit’s culture and effectiveness – compromising recruitment, retention, and morale of highly skilled members (Anand & Winters, 2008; Atewologun et al., 2018; O’Mara & Richter, 2006).
2. Compromised Unit Cohesion and Morale - Leaders speaking or acting based on their unconsciously held biases can damage trust and relationships among their members, resulting in lower unit cohesion and morale (Fish et al., 2020).
3. Organizational Level - Unconscious bias can impact the organization by impacting recruitment, interviewing, hiring, mentoring, retention, evaluation and promotions, policy implementation and enforcement, and more, all of which have profound costs for any organization, including the DoD



1. Self-Reflection and Regulation Training (SRRT): Awareness and Education - An initial step toward mitigating any bias is to become aware of and knowledgeable about biases. Thus, military personnel need education on the origin, existence, persistence, and negative effects of such biases (Burgess et al., 2007; Devine, 2015).Multiple Hands overlapping

2. Measuring Unconscious Bias - Part of awareness involves the measurement of unconscious biases. While there are numerous measures of unconscious or implicit bias, the most widely used measure is the Implicit Associations Test (IAT) (Greenwald et al., 1998). The goal of the Implicit Association Test (IAT) is to assess the extent of people’s bias.

3. SSRT: Capacity-Building Skills - Conscious objectivity training must move from awareness-only training into skill development and accountability, with the goal of building capacity to sustain long-term behavioral change.

4. Motivation - Research indicates that to affect long-term change, awareness and education must 
be combined with skills, and individuals must be motivated for change.

  •  Learners must be aware of their biases and concerned about the consequences of their biases before they will be motivated to exert effort to eliminate them.

  • Learners also need to know when biased responses are likely to occur and how to replace those biased responses with responses more consistent with their goals.


Shape of Head with words related to Unconscious Bias

Facilitation Guide:

Use this guide along with the resources below to for Unconscious Bias Training

►  Facilitation Guide - coming soon!

Training Videos:

Video Icon   Video: Unconscious Bias coming soon!

Video Icon--Video: Office of Congressional Workplace Rights - Government Training Video coming soon!

Additional Resources:

►  Unconscious Bias Focus Group Questions
►  Unconscious Bias Handout - coming soon!
►  Unconscious Prejudice Questionnaire - coming soon!
►  Remedies for Reducing Bias - coming soon!
►  Bias Worksheet - coming soon!
►  Circle of Trust - coming soon!
►  DoD Standards of Conduct - coming soon!

Service Specific Policies

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Civilian Personnel 
►​  DoD Instruction 1438.06


Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)


Everyone has an unconscious bias for or against something. Unconscious biases are the brain’s way of reducing the amount of information it needs to process by relying on stereotypes and previously learned information to make snap decisions. Unconscious biases are like gut reactions. They are not inherently bad, and sometimes can be helpful in preventing injury or disaster. However, unconscious biases about people and the actions that follow the biases can be negative.
Lumping a person into a stereotype based on just a few pieces of information can lead to behaviors toward that person that are not justified. Stereotypes are based on inaccurate information that doesn’t apply to everyone. Unconscious biases are quick internal beliefs, but the actions that result from them can be discriminatory.


  • Engage in self-regulation: Try to notice your biases and actively prevent yourself from acting on them.
  • Decrease cognitive load: Reduce stress and distractions so your mind doesn’t have to jump to stereotypes
  • Individuation: Notice specific things that are unique about the people around you instead of lumping them into a stereotype.
  • Stereotype replacement: Recognize stereotypical responses and replace them with non-stereotypical responses.
  • Counter-stereotypic imaging: Imagining in detail a person who breaks a specific stereotype.
  • Perspective-taking: Take the perspective of the person who is being stereotyped. “Walk a mile in their shoes.”
  • Situational Attribution Training: Make an effort to notice the situational aspects that may be causing someone to behave the way they are.
  • Increase your opportunities to engage in positive interactions with the person/group that you are stereotyping.


A memorandum from the U.S. Secretary of Defense titled Immediate Actions to Address Diversity and Inclusion and Equal Opportunity in the Military Services was issued on July 14, 2020. This memorandum specifically states “Addressing racial prejudice and bias within the force requires a combination of ongoing skill development, leadership, and accountability.” Then DoDI 1350. DoD Military Equal Opportunity Program was then reissued on September 24, 2020 detailing required training on a variety of subjects including “unconscious bias”.

Think PRIME-ing and DECID-ing.
PRIME-ing helps increase unit resilience.

  • Promote psychological safety within the unit
  • Role model bias mitigation skills
  • Increase interpersonal communication skills to gather individuating (distinguishing) information
  • Mentor subordinates to increase opportunities for contact
  • Educate leaders and subordinates
DECID-ing helps increase objectivity in decision making.
  • Decreasing cognitive load (thinking quickly and having a lot on the mind increases stereotyping)
  • Examining assumptions
  • Countering stereotypic imaging
  • Increasing individuation (purposefully noticing unique traits about everyone rather than relying on stereotypes)
  • Developing perspective


Targets of bias can experience:

  • Higher levels of stress/anxiety
  • Lower sense of belonging
  • Psychological disengagement
  • Behavioral compensation to cope with bias and micro-aggressions
  • Lower job satisfaction
  • Decreased job performance
All of these affect the workplace climate for both targets and those who act on unconscious biases. These can lead to anxiety and discomfort regarding interactions with coworkers. This can decrease the ability to control one’s thoughts and reactions, leading to additional unconscious biases, microaggressions, and discriminations. Both targets and those who act on unconscious biases will have different perceptions of interactions that take place. Depending on the rank of the individuals, this can cause punitive action. This climate causes a loss of time, resources, and performance and can lead to retention and recruitment issues.


Unconscious bias has pervasive adverse effects on organizations, infecting recruitment, interviews, mentoring, evaluations, promotions, policy implementation, etc., which decrease unit morale, cohesion, effectiveness, and mission readiness.

DEOMI has several resources to help conduct training. Navigate to the Resources tab for videos, podcasts, articles, and other helpful information.



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