Unconscious Bias in the Decision-Making Process

The term unconscious bias refers to the phenomenon of cognitive bias and describes the process of categorizing the world. Unconscious bias arises on the basis of prior experiences and plays a role in decision-making. Everyone takes such mental shortcuts because they enable an initial, rapid way of looking at things that reduces the complexity of everyday life and the impressions associated with it. Consequently, everyone is biased to a certain degree.

However, in the scientific review process, unconscious bias can hamper the aspiration of reaching a fair and objective assessment (e.g., of research applications). Moreover, unconscious bias often contradicts formulated convictions and values.

Unconscious bias has increasingly moved into the light of research and the public sphere in recent years, also due to current research findings. For example, the Nobel prize winner Daniel Kahneman points out that decisions are seldom taken on the basis of purely rational criteria, but are influenced and distorted by an unconscious bias.

Using the information presented below, the FWF wishes to sensitize others and summarize the most important scientific findings in this area. This should sharpen and deepen our awareness of the impact of unconscious bias, including for decision-makers in the context of the assessment of scientific achievements. The process of sensitization and awareness-raising should ensure a fair, scientific assessment in order to prevent any consequences for underrepresented groups.

Inequalities in science: The leaky pipeline …

There are visible inequalities between researchers in the European science landscape both with regard to the distribution in the disciplines and to hierarchical levels.

While women remain underrepresented in mathematics, informatics, natural sciences, and technology (MINT), the same is true for men in the humanities as well as social and cultural sciences. However, women are generally significantly underrepresented on the higher hierarchical levels of the science system, regardless of the disciplines. In the research system (especially in the MINT disciplines), K. E. Grogan 2019 calls this phenomenon a “leaky pipeline”.

… and its consequences for top-level research

These inequalities are of relevance for the recruiting of women and awarding research funds: In an international comparison, women apply less often for research funds and in smaller amounts than their male colleagues, and often have a smaller probability of success, despite having the same qualifications. Highly qualified female scientists are thus unable to reach their full potential, and in some cases, many women turn their back on science – a considerable loss for science and research.


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