Is Unconscious Bias Coloring Your First Impressions (and Stereotypes)?

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Does a person’s appearance shape your initial interaction with them? Of course it does. Humans are hard-wired to figure past experiences into future interactions; this mechanism is the foundation behind your brain’s language processing power, logic and reasoning skills, and problem-solving abilities. “Pattern matching” is the cognitive process by which your brain connects current sensory stimulation with past experience, and recent studies in neuroscience attribute the human species’ accelerated evolution and superior reasoning capabilities to “pattern matching.” 

Is Unconscious Bias Coloring Your First Impressions (and Stereotypes)?

Pattern matching is inextricably linked to an individual’s intelligence and mental flexibility and even serves as the basis for modern-day IQ tests. In fact, some research has shown that people with superior pattern processing capabilities experience higher earnings, better job performance, and a greater concern for bodily health. It should not come as a surprise that your ability to recall information and apply it to your present situation is connected to your IQ and job performance—but it comes at a cost. People with higher cognitive abilities are also more likely to apply learned stereotypes to both interpersonal and business interactions, according to a 2017 study conducted by NYU.

What’s the first thing you see?

A Harvard University study determined that the first thing most people notice about another person is their perceived age, race, and gender. This is followed by more specific characteristics like bodily language, clothing choice, and facial features and expressions. This is basic human nature and a habit that is difficult to unlearn. While not problematic in and of itself, it is when we allow these characteristics to shape our interactions that a problem arises. In humans, “pattern matching” is associated with racial profiling, age discrimination, and sexist assumptions. An example of unconscious bias coloring first impressions and stereotypes.

The intersection of race and gender create what specialists call a “gender profile.” A gender profile is the culmination of a person’s gender and the social conception of the gender of their race–Asian people are often perceived as more feminine while black people are assumed to have more masculine traits. It is also common for us to assign gender and race profiles to various jobs and job functions–another form of pattern matching. Who do you picture when you think of a librarian? A security guard? What about a CEO? This 2015 study by the Society for Personality and Social Psychology argues that the gender profile of someone’s assigned biological gender plus their “racial gender” is the deciding factor behind their perceived hireability for certain occupations that have socially assigned gender profiles. The study uncovered a breath of interesting insights, such that Asian men and white women are equally likely to be associated with occupations in the STEM fields, whereas black individuals are assumed to have a lower income, and more masculine roles. The study goes beyond identifying the more obvious connections that our brains make between a person’s sex and job function to attribute race to perceived masculinity or femininity. 

Where do microaggressions fit in?

Microaggressions are subtle but offensive comments or actions that are unintentional and reinforce a prior mental image. They occur when someone allows pattern matching to make assumptions about someone based on inappropriate stereotypes, and then dictate their actions based upon those assumptions. A microaggression can be:

    • The improper use of a trans person’s preferred pronouns
    • Assuming a person of color is foreign-born and asking “so where are you from?”
    • A man refusing to do the breakroom dishes because “that’s women’s work!”
    • Belittling a coworker and minimizing their ideals and values

Microaggressions further marginalize those who may already feel marginalized and they have a significant “othering” effect, regardless of intention. Whether or not the aggressor was trying to be offensive, actions like this send a very clear message to the recipient that they are seen as an embodiment of the stereotypes surrounding their demographic. 

Microaggressions are a specific breed of harassment and discrimination because they are subtle, and can easily go unnoticed by the aggressor. They are not obvious direct attacks on an individual, but are short-lived offensive comments or actions that are based on someone’s age, race, gender, sexuality, and so on. Microaggressions are a direct result of pattern matching.

How do we break the pattern matching mold?

The same NYU study which linked intelligence to pattern matching also suggests that, despite this connection, higher intelligence indicates an ability to unlearn stereotypes and adjust actions accordingly. Researchers gathered evidence which supported the theory that the most effective pattern matchers were also best able to incorporate new, atypical information into their decision-making process and avoid making decisions based on the patterns learned from past experience. 

What does this mean? Though we are creatures of habit, we do not have to stay that way. Our brains are hard-wired to take past experience and learned norms into account in all things that we do, but we do not have to let those learned stereotypes carve out future interactions. When meeting someone, allow them to make a first impression. Allow new characters in our lives to define our perception of them with their words and their actions, not their appearance. Creatures of habit? Maybe. Immovable objects? Certainly not.

Watch and share this video on microaggressions and pattern matching. Let it serve as a reminder that it does not take blatant discrimination to make a coworker feel “othered.”

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John Wiese

John Wiese

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