How Recognizing and Combating Unconscious Bias Can Improve Investigations

By Daniel Greenberg, Vice President, and Krystal Ramirez, Associate Director, Forward Risk and Intelligence

Under the Hood: A Discussion Series for Investigative Professionals

High-quality investigations require not just experience conducting research, but a truly investigative mindset – which includes accounting for unconscious bias.

An investigator’s job at its core is to obtain the truth. The investigator must grapple with the inaccessibility of much helpful information, and the need to filter out huge amounts of irrelevant data. Often, the key finding in a case is the needle in a haystack.

To overcome these challenges, investigators must approach their craft with a mindset that prizes intellect over rote actions. Investigators make informed decisions and practice good judgment, keeping in mind the key attributes of quality research: depth, breadth, carefulness, and direction.

An investigator’s judgment can become clouded if they are affected by their own biases – both conscious and unconscious. It is essential that investigators reflect on what biases may be affecting them, and then take steps to counteract them.

What is bias?

In the case of explicit, or conscious, bias, an individual is very clear about their feelings and attitudes, and related behaviors are conducted with intent. Because of this, conscious bias can be easier to anticipate and recognize.

For instance, an investigator may experience conscious bias stemming from a preexisting relationship with a company or individual that they are looking into. This, of course, can present a conflict of interest during the course of an investigation.

Although conscious biases are most often thought of in connection to relationships with people, such biases also can exist with respect to records and sources of information. For example, an investigator may consciously trust certain news and information sources more than others. Indeed, many investigative professionals would admit that they favor more mainstream media over less well-known publications, and account for this explicit bias in the way that they present their findings.

On the other hand, unconscious bias, also called implicit bias, is a bias that the holder is not aware of at the time. Science has shown that people harbor more unconscious biases than most would care to admit.

Specifically, numerous studies indicate that there are limitations to human perception, attention, and decision-making – that is, individuals cannot process all stimuli that surround them on a daily basis, so instead they adapt “mental shortcuts.” Although there are ways in which this tendency can be helpful, it also has the potential to inadvertently undermine investigations. A number of nonprofit organizations like The Innocence Project have documented how unconscious bias can negatively affect criminal investigations and criminal justice outcomes; these same biases can also affect corporate investigations.

How can unconscious bias affect investigations?

Unconscious bias can affect how an investigator looks for evidence, interprets facts, and ultimately reaches conclusions. Common examples include attention bias, confirmation bias, affinity bias, and attribution bias – all of which can negatively impact an investigation.

Studies show that we pay more attention to action that is consistent with a stereotype than to action that contradicts a stereotype: this is known as attention bias, or low-effort information processing. In these cases, an individual may tend to develop inferences or expectations about a person early on in the information-gathering process. Consider that when conducting open-source research, an investigator may unconsciously be more likely to expect to find criminal records for an individual if they are a person of color. An investigator affected by such a bias could mistakenly connect a criminal record to the target of their investigation, when in reality the finding actually pertained to a different person with the same name.

Similarly, confirmation bias is the tendency to seek out and attribute weight to pieces of evidence that support an individual’s preconceived notion and ignore evidence which disproves it. It also manifests itself in the tendency to interpret ambiguous evidence as supportive of one’s own thinking. In the case of a human intelligence (HUMIINT) investigation, confirmation bias can even unconsciously affect the questions one may ask, leading a source to give answers that are skewed. While an investigator may be inclined to ask targeted questions, these may unintentionally elicit answers that support an initial assumption, whereas a broader line of questioning may provide a more fulsome set of facts.

Unconscious bias can also lead an investigator to discount important evidence. For example, individuals often have a tendency or preference for people like themselves – this is called affinity, or ingroup, bias. This preference for people like ourselves is largely instinctive and unconscious. Affinity bias can affect an investigator’s professional skepticism; say, if an investigator were to unconsciously be less critical of someone who shares their political views.

Unconscious biases are also problematic because they can interfere with the objective assessment of facts and skew an analysis. In the case of attribution bias, an investigator may attribute an individual’s behavior to a stereotypical characteristic. Conversely, if an individual behaves in contrast to a group stereotype, an investigator might attribute that behavior to external causes, preserving the integrity of the stereotype. For instance, an investigator may unconsciously be more likely to ascribe a woman CEO’s accomplishments to external factors (e.g., an upturn in the economy, or stronger overall demand in the industry) than to her effective leadership skills.

Because we are fundamentally unaware of our own automatic, unconscious biases, we believe we are acting in accordance with our conscious intentions, when in fact our unconscious is in the driver’s seat. Therefore, our assessment of the facts is never as objective as we believe them to be.

In what ways can an investigations firm combat unconscious bias?

Managing unconscious bias during an investigation is challenging because, by definition, an individual is unaware of its influence. However, by proactively recognizing the impact unconscious bias can have on investigations, and consequently, the quality of the work, a firm can take steps to combat it.

First, an investigations firm can recruit talent with unique backgrounds by employing hiring practices that encourage a diverse candidate pool. The strongest team will include individuals who have different lived experiences and multi-faceted identities. This diversity (including sexual orientation, gender identity, neurodiversity, socio-economic or educational background, and myriad other traits that are hard to define) will pay dividends especially during the internal review process, when colleagues aim to bring in different perspectives to the research, analysis, and reporting on an engagement.

Employers can also actively foster a culture of learning and growth. Investigators should feel empowered to continuously self-monitor their own perceptions, judgments, behavior, decisions, and actions for the influence of implicit biases. Firms can nurture this by providing opportunities for investigators to pursue professional development. For example, the firm can provide grants or stipend for its team members to attend conferences and training courses.

Having access to these grants at work motivated me to pursue professional interests that I may not have been able to explore in as much depth otherwise. As an example, I recently attended a nationwide conference exclusively focused on LGBTQ+ inclusion in the workplace. Developing additional skills and bringing some of those lessons back to the office has allowed me to connect with colleagues in new ways and build initiatives that ultimately contribute to the work that we do.

— Forward Risk Associate Beatriz Bechelli

Taking such steps to mitigate the harm of unconscious bias will lead to higher quality work, and better outcomes for clients. As investigators, efforts to combat bias and improve diversity will ultimately demonstrate our commitment to our profession and our clients.

This post is the third in a series about workplace challenges facing investigative professionals and other white-collar researchers, focusing on practical advice and lessons learned from our own experiences. While tailored toward the investigative and intelligence industry, we hope that these articles are also valuable for others in the professional services sector, while also providing a behind-the-scenes look at Forward Risk’s values and operating practices.

If you have any questions or comments, or would like to suggest a topic for further discussion, please email our Vice President Dan Greenberg – dan [at] forwardrisk.com.

Daniel Greenberg is a Vice President, and Krystal Ramirez is an Associate Director at Forward Risk and Intelligence LLC, a corporate investigations firm with offices in Washington, DC and New York. More information can be found at www.forwardrisk.com.