Understanding and Overcoming Challenges in Unconscious Bias

Monday, Nov. 30, 2020

By Richard Dargan

Mechanisms like recruitment and mentorships are needed to overcome unconscious bias and its pernicious effects, according to Shankar Vedantam, a popular author and podcast host who presented the RSNA 2020 New Horizons Lecture.

In a switch from the traditional format, this year’s New Horizons Lecture featured a question-and-answer session moderated by Ann L. Brown, MD, professor of radiology at the Cincinnati College of Medicine. RSNA President James P. Borgstede, MD, introduced the session and joined in the conversation.



Unconscious bias refers to social stereotypes about certain groups of people that individuals form outside their own conscious awareness. The topic been a major focus for Vedantam, social science correspondent at National Public Radio (NPR) and the host of the Hidden Brain podcast, one of the most popular podcasts in the world.

The topic of Vedantam’s lecture, “Insights for Radiology from the Hidden Brain,” was timely as radiology addresses a lack of diversity compared with some other medical specialties. Vedantam noted that when people in a workplace setting don’t see anyone who looks like them, they may not feel like they belong.

“This is the challenging thing about unconscious bias,” Vedantam said. “It undermines the confidence of people who could get to the top and it potentially diminishes the resolve of people who are already at the top in terms of their willingness to lend a hand to the people coming up behind them.”

It also potentially affects patient care, Vedantam said, noting that studies have shown patient outcomes can be better when they are matched to their physician by race or gender.

“Diversification is not just the right thing to do, it’s the more effective thing,” Vedantam said.

Tools to Counter Unconscious Bias

The topic’s timeliness was evident in the numerous audience questions submitted during and after the presentation, with several queries focused on obstacles to addressing unconscious bias.

“Mere awareness is a very important first step, but it usually is not sufficient to overcome bias,” Vedantam said. “You have to put in place effortful mechanisms to try and control those biases.”

Artificial intelligence (AI) offers intriguing possibilities as a tool that can be trained to eliminate bias and make more bias-free recommendations, according to Vedantam. Something as simple as an AI-generated pop-up window on the computer can serve to pull decision-making out of the unconscious mind and into the conscious realm.

“You might still make the same decision, but now you’re giving yourself 10 seconds of reflection to ask yourself if it’s possible that some part of your decision might be shaped by these unconscious algorithms and if you can make a different decision if you think about it consciously,” Vedantam said.

And mentorships are one of the most effective ways to counter unconscious bias, according to Vedantam.

He described how leaders of the chemistry department at the University of California in Berkeley decided to invest time developing mentorship programs instead of spending a lot of time conducting unconscious bias training. The programs have been successful in numerous ways, including attracting women and minorities and helping them secure jobs or enter PhD programs.

“Being pragmatic against unconscious biases is really the most effective way to combat them,” he said.

Vedantam said that getting buy-in from the organization is key to overcoming these obstacles. He pointed out that the successes of the civil rights and gay rights movements were made possible in part by people outside of the African American and gay communities who felt invested in the outcomes.

“The psychologically astute question to ask is, ‘How do I construct this so that the person I’m trying to convince feels like they can be in the vanguard of the movement?’” he said. “That’s how you get people to feel engaged.”

For More Information:

View the RSNA 2020 session Insights for Radiology from the Hidden Brain — PS20 at RSNA2020.RSNA.org.