Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Unconscious Biases – the Benefits, the Harm, and the Invitation

Written by: on March 8, 2023

An A.I. Malfunction or Accurate Reflection

“Like any other shiny new toy, A.I. is ultimately a mirror. And it will reflect back exactly who we are. From the best of us, to the worst of us.” This statement was made by comedian John Oliver in last week’s showing of Last Week Tonight with John Oliver.[1] In an episode about Artificial Intelligence, John Oliver balances out the perspective that A.I. will change everything by affirming that much will be changed, but, if we’re not careful, the same issues will be affected as when other technological advances emerge (such as benefitting the rich, hurting the underprivileged, and increasing the wealth gap). Oliver uses this mirror that is A.I. to show an uglier side of humanity by bringing up the Twitter chatbot called Tay. This chatbot would learn via chatting on Twitter with young users (already concerning). Tay was shut down when it began tweeting racist, offensive, conspiracy theory-perpetuating tweets.[2]


This is an example of a truth we must face: AI is not immune to bias. Why? Because we are not immune to bias. But, unlike AI, we can develop the awareness to unlearn harmful biases.


Sway by Dr. Pragya Agarwal

Dr. Pragya Agarwal, behavioral scientist and author of Sway: Unraveling Unconscious Bias[3], writes about the unconscious biases that we all have and what we can do to mitigate our unconscious bias from making snap judgments that would disadvantage others. In this book, Agarwal makes the case that unconscious bias goes beyond racism and sexism. It is far more insidious than we give it credit for. None of us are immune to bias. Therefore, we ought to not be apprehensive to admit having biases.[4] We need to be honest about having biases, for none of us are immune. Agarwal focuses her work on unconscious, implicit biases. Though there are biases we are conscious of, for the purpose of this post I will focus on unconscious biases, their benefits, their harm, and close with an invitation.


The Benefits of Unconscious Bias

Behavioral economist Daniel Kahneman popularized vernacular around the two systems our brains utilize. System one is fast, automatic, and without effortful thinking, and system two is deliberate and effortful.[5] This is helpful for survival. When one sees a threat, one does not have time or energy for effortful cognition. Agarwal contends we can track the presence of our biases to our need for survival in early human history. Biases were required to assess threats outside of one’s tribe. Today, our implicit biases aid in decision-making. Without intuitively knowing our preferences, we would waste much precious time deciding what kind of ice cream we crave when we know that chocolate never disappoints.

These kinds of unconscious biases that lead to judgments and decisions are not harmful. However, there are far too many instances when unconscious biases are not only unhelpful but harmful.


The Harm of Unconscious Bias


One fateful day in November 2014, 12-year-old Tamir Rice was shot by a Cleveland police officer. Seen as a threat while playing with a toy gun, police pulled up to Rice and shot him down.[6] An unconscious bias, fed over the years with racist narratives and never interrogated, made a fateful judgment.


Unconscious biases, when unchecked, cause us to exclude, harm, and, in some horrific cases, kill. Unmitigated implicit bias is not the problem for the white supremacist. It is on all of us to deal with our implicit biases.


How Then Shall We Live?


The next question is, “how then shall we live knowing that we perpetually carry unconscious biases?” Agarwal exhorts her readers to become aware of them and do the self-reflection necessary to understand why they are present.[7] When it comes to the presence of mind to do this, Kahneman writes ““The way to block errors that originate in System 1 is simple in principle: recognize the signs that you are in a cognitive minefield, slow down, and ask for reinforcement from System 2.”[8] In the works of Jesus, “There is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known.”[9] Let us become the kind of leaders who do not avoid investigating our implicit biases, but rather, by the grace of God, with the guidance of God’s Spirit and God’s multicultural Church, become aware of and grow from these implicit biases.

[1] Artificial Intelligence: Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (HBO), 2023, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Sqa8Zo2XWc4, 26:41-26:52.

[2] Ibid. 21:41-22:27.

[3] Pragya Agarwal, Sway: Unravelling Unconscious Bias (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2020).

[4] What Is the Science behind Unconscious Bias? | WIRED Live, 2021, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yU_s_r979NU, 1:30-2:03.

[5]  Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow, 1st pbk. ed (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013).

[6] 12 Year Old Tamir Rice Shot “within Two Seconds” of Police Arrival, 2014, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UVZM8w9JCXI.

[7] Agarwal, Sway, 9.

[8] Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow, 417.

[9] The New International Version (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011), Lk 12:2.

About the Author


David Beavis

David is Australian by birth, was raised in Southern California, and is the Youth and Young Adults Pastor at B4 Church in Beaverton, Oregon. David and his wife, Laura, live in Hillsboro with their dog, Coava (named after their favorite coffee shop). M.A. Theology - Talbot School of Theology B.A. Psychology - Vanguard University of Southern California

11 responses to “Unconscious Biases – the Benefits, the Harm, and the Invitation”

  1. Kristy Newport says:

    I liked how you addressed A.I. and how it is not exempt from bias. I also enjoyed how you wove in fast and slow thinking by Kahneman. The last paragraph is my favorite. Luke 12:2 is convicting and makes me want to pause and self reflect.
    I am curious how bias has been something you have become aware of? I find that it takes someone lovingly drawing my attention to an issue. sometimes I am able to self reflect and take ownership of my biases. I know that my upbringing plays a big role in this too,
    Great blog

    • mm David Beavis says:

      Hi Kristy,

      Honestly, bias is something I have been made aware of after it has been aired in the open. For example, this past week, in talking about my NPO project with a friend, I talked about developing a coaching curriculum with a component for “developing a healthy marriage for the pastor and his wife” not realizing until after I said it that it assumed all pastors are men. A vast majority are due to the Church’s dismissing of women in leadership roles over the centuries. This bias of mine is a reflection, and a reinforcer, of this ugly history.

  2. David, I liked your post, was great seeing how you brought in Kahneman supporting Agarwal. You did great concluding “Let us become the kind of leaders who do not avoid investigating our implicit biases, but rather, by the grace of God, with the guidance of God’s Spirit and God’s multicultural Church, become aware of and grow from these implicit biases.” Have you found any resistance in dealing with your implicit biases? Thank my friend.

    • mm David Beavis says:

      Hey Jean,

      In answer to your question “Have you found any resistance in dealing with your implicit biases?” I would have to say my internal resistance is this: minimizing my internal bias by assuming that I am more “advanced” and “aware.” It is by assuming that implicit bias is “everyone else’s problem” that the internal resistance becomes dangerous. Great question!

  3. Tonette Kellett says:


    I love what you wrote about system 1 and system 2 thinking – recognizing that in system 1 thinking you are in a cognitive minefield. Slow down! Ask for reinforcement from system 2. This is brilliant.

    Enjoyed your post, as always!

  4. mm Audrey Robinson says:

    David, your post is very thoughtful and ‘spot on’.

    One of my concerns is how to convince people who continue to say they treat everyone equally that they have biases and to do the hard self-work? Any thoughts?

    • mm David Beavis says:

      Thank you Audrey! Oh, that question is a hard one. Here’s my first thought: More is caught than taught. We humans are master imitators. The mirror neurons in our brains that have, from birth, helped us learn from those around us, might be useful in this. By this I mean people who don’t believe they have unconscious biases will likely be made more aware when we, ourselves, are honest with our unconscious biases. Then they can see modeled an honesty around having unconscious bias and a commitment to grow from it.

    • Alana Hayes says:

      Audrey… I do hear your concern but caution when you try to do this… that it may come across as casting stones.

      Is it our job to convince people that we feel as an equally imperfect human they themself have a bias?

      How can we grow without pointing fingers at each other?

      • mm Audrey Robinson says:

        Thank you for your response. I have learned that we grow when we face difficult conversations speaking the truth in love according to Ephesians 4:15. And that those difficult conversations are best done after much prayer,

        I’m not naive to think that if a person is not self-aware or who chooses to ignore promptings by the Holy Spirit I can convince them of anything. In those cases, it’s best to allow them to come to the realization of their biases and if and only if they choose to do anything at that point – I am there to assist.

  5. Alana Hayes says:


    Thank you for taking the time to respond! I think you are absolutely right! Through prayer all things are possible! I really like what you said.” it’s best to allow them to come to the realization of their biases and if and only if they choose to do anything at that point – I am there to assist.”

    It is kind of like raising kids…. you let them fall and are there to pick them up when they realize they need you.

    Great post gal.

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