Unconscious Bias in Improv Inititiations

The student initiated a first beat scene by stepping out and gesturing for someone on the sidelines to join them. They were not calling that person into the scene because they were calling back a character. It was the first beat. I stopped the student and asked them why they had done it.

They didn’t want to be alone in the scene and had seen others do it.

They didn’t want to be alone in the scene. That’s a natural fear.

They had seen others do it. That’s also true. It’s pervasive, and I’m sure I’ve done it.

What’s also true is that anyone in this situation chooses the person to join them and implicitly excludes everyone else. Any number of factors could have played into that choice. One of those factors is unconscious bias.


Unconscious bias training is becoming more commonplace in the office. Here’s a definition taken from UCSF’s diversity web site:

Unconscious biases are social stereotypes about certain groups of people that individuals form outside their own conscious awareness. Everyone holds unconscious beliefs about various social and identity groups, and these biases stem from one’s tendency to organize social worlds by categorizing.

We’re all subject to these kinds of cognitive errors. Michael Lewis’s The Undoing Project describes some of the Nobel-Prize-winning research that explored many of these ideas, with examples of how they play into decisions like selecting NBA players and diagnosing medical conditions.

So how does this show up in our lives? Consider being in the front of the line at your company’s tech support to get your laptop fixed. There are two free booths, each with a tech support employee behind it. The person at Booth A physically matches a stereotype of a person good with computers. The person at Booth B does not. Both people went through the same interview process and had to pass the same hiring bar to be where they are. They are both equally qualified to help. However, experiments have shown preferences for the person at Booth A in situations like this.

The effect? The person at Booth A is given more opportunities in the workplace, more experience, etc., simply because they fit a stereotype.


Consider the student who in the first beat chooses someone to come out with them. We have no way of knowing why or how that choice was made. What we do know is that unconscious bias exists. We also know that in such a moment, someone is making a split-second choice about whom they call out. Furthermore, split-second choices are fertile soil for unconscious bias.

Now consider this. I once considered quitting improv because I wasn’t called out into scenes by my teammates. Maybe I’m not good enough to be doing this. That thought entered my mind. How many others have been in that boat?

I regularly make choices that do not mitigate for unconscious bias. When I can find places to mitigate it, I’m going to call them out.

I advised the student against gesturing a person in, particularly during the first beat. They’d be doing everyone a favor if they can make their scenes work with anyone.

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