What Is Implicit Bias?
Implicit or unconscious bias is defined as "the process of associating stereotypes or attitudes toward categories of people without our conscious awareness." All of us have a natural human tendency to sort people into groups based on characteristics such as age, gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, disability, and religion. These unconscious responses allow our brain to process vast amounts of information about one another automatically and at lightning speed. We process approximately 200,000 times more information each second unconsciously than consciously. In other words, a majority of how we process information occurs outside of our conscious awareness or control. Having to process everything about each individual we meet would be both overwhelming and likely incapacitating. Sorting is a type of cognitive shorthand that saves cognitive resources..
We tend to look for or favor information that confirms our associations and ignore or screen out information that contradict them. This is called confirmation bias. We tend to see an individual as a representation of a particular group rather than as an individual.
Further, we tend to favor, prefer, and associate positive characteristics with members of the group to which we belong--people who are most like us and share similar interests, experiences, and backgrounds. This is known as affinity, in-group favoritism or in-group bias. All of us belong to cultural groups defined by traits such as race, ethnicity, religion, gender, disability, sexual orientation, national origin, family, or social or professional status. In-group bias is so strong that, even when randomly assigned to a group, people report a preference for that group. Accordingly, we tend to associate negative characteristics with or disfavor members of groups to which we do not belong. This is referred to as out-group bias.
We also tend to think that examples of things that come readily to mind to be more factual or accurate are more representative than is actually the case. This is called availability bias. For instance, if you have been raised in a family that highlights differences between men and women, you will have numerous examples of those differences, but few examples of commonalities. All of these tendencies are the foundation of stereotyping, prejudice and, ultimately, may result in discriminatory decisions or actions, even if those decisions or actions might not be what we consciously intend or acknowledge.
Where Do Implicit Biases Originate?
Implicit biases are shaped by our personal and life experiences, the attitudes of family, friends and others, living and working environments, culture, the media, movies, and books. Implicit biases develop over the course of a lifetime, beginning at an early age.
How Can We Measure Implicit Biases?
It used to be that if we wanted to know a person's biases, we asked. However, we now know that self-reports of biases are unreliable due, in part, to the fact that we are often unaware of our biases, believe we are not biased, or may modify our responses to align with what is regarded as socially acceptable. The Implicit Association Test (IAT) is one of the most well-known, popular, and widely used tools for measuring one's implicit biases, and has been responsible for introducing the concept of implicit bias to the public. There are numerous IATs (over 90) that assess implicit biases across a wide range of characteristics, including race, disability, sexuality, age, gender-career, religion, and weight.
Introduced in 1998 and maintained by Project Implicit--a consortium comprised of researchers from Harvard University, the University of Virginia, and the University of Washington --the IAT is a web-based test that measures the strength of associations between concepts (e.g., "Disabled Persons", "Abled Persons") and evaluations (e.g., "Bad", "Good"). Test takers are asked to quickly sort words and images/symbols into categories (e.g., Good, Bad, Disabled Persons, Abled Persons) by pressing the "e" key if the word or image/symbol belongs to the category on the left, and the "i" key if the word or image/symbol belongs to the category on the right.
An individual's IAT score is based on how long it takes (speed) the individual, on average, to sort words and images/symbols when the categories are combined, such as Good or Disabled Persons and Bad or Abled Persons and vice versa. The IAT recognizes that most of us identify words and images or symbols more quickly when they originate from what we perceive as closely related rather than unrelated categories. For example, if you are faster to categorize words when "Disabled Persons and Good" share a response relative to when "Disabled Persons and Bad" share a response key, you would have an implicit preference for "Disabled Persons."
How Are Implicit Biases Harmful?
Implicit biases influence our perceptions, judgments, decisions, and actions and can predict behavior. Implicit biases can lead to microaggressions. These subtle, but offensive comments or actions, which are often unintentional and reflect implicit biases, unconsciously reinforce a stereotype when directed at persons based on their membership in a marginalized group. Unlike explicit discrimination, microaggressions typically are committed by people who are well-meaning. For example, a waiter may ask the person accompanying a blind person or wheelchair user what he or she would like to order, sending the message that a person with a disability is unable to make decisions independently. These "small" slights are cumulative and significant over time.
Social scientists point to mounting evidence that implicit biases can lead to discriminatory actions in a wide range of human interactions, from education to employment, health care, housing, and criminal justice. When we look at some of the disproportionalities (i.e., the differences between a group's representation in the population at large and its over- or under-representation in specific areas) that have plagued us for so long, despite society's best intentions, it is hard to explain them.
For example, we know that students with disabilities achieve in school at a lower rate than others and are far more often and more severely disciplined in school. Most of us believe that teachers and school administrators act in good faith and have good intentions. If we were to ask them whether they intentionally and explicitly intend to treat students with disabilities with lower expectations and discipline them more severely than students without disabilities, most if not all would say that was not their intent and believe that they are making decisions based on objective facts. Yet, it is difficult to understand the disproportionate results. One possible explanation is that these decision-makers are indeed acting in good faith but are responding with implicit biases.
How Can We Mitigate Unconscious Biases?
Acknowledging the difficulties of controlling biases that are unconscious and automatic, the good news is that implicit biases are malleable and their effect on behavior can be managed and mitigated. Although nearly all of us have implicit biases, we can take steps to minimize how often they are activated and how much they affect our perceptions, decisions, and actions. The first step is to acknowledge that all of us have implicit biases despite our egalitarian intentions and learn about the cognitive science and the influence of implicit biases on our judgment, decisions, and actions toward demographic groups, resulting in unequal outcomes. Taking the Implicit Association Test or other tests that measure implicit responses helps raise awareness. Once aware, motivation to change and to manage implicit biases is critical. critical.
Researchers have developed various de-biasing interventions to counter the negative effects of implicit biases by building new mental associations. To reinforce these new associations, these interventions must be consistently and continuously reapplied. These interventions include:
- Intergroup Contact: Meet and engage with individual members of outgroups. Getting to know people one-on-one and engaging in positive meaningful relationships can help you build new positive associations and reduce stereotyping.
- Counter-stereotypes: Develop new associations that counter your stereotypes. Expose yourself to or think about exemplars who possess positive traits that contrast with your stereotypes. For example, read about blind judge Richard Bernstein, Associate Justice of the Michigan Supreme Court.
- Individuation: Consider the attributes of the individual apart from their group. For instance, when you meet someone who has a mental health condition, focus on their individual characteristics, traits, interests, and preferences rather than stereotypes about persons with these conditions.
- Perspective Taking: Take the perspective of the individual. Try to understand from their perspective what they encounter and what adaptive techniques they might use to function successfully.
- Deliberative Processing: Reflect on your perceptions, judgments, behavior, decisions, and actions to better understand which ones are worthy of a more thoughtful consideration rather than a split-second reaction. We tend to act on our stereotypes when we have a lot of information to process in a short amount of time and feel stressed.
- Common Ground: Focus on what you have in common with the individual members of the groups you are stereotyping rather than their differences.
- Education: Participate in trainings and other educational programs aimed at raising awareness about implicit biases and their impact.
- Self-Monitoring: Continuously self-monitor your perceptions, judgments, behavior, decisions, and actions for the influence of implicit biases.
- Accountability: Hold yourself responsible for the negative influence that implicit biases have on your perceptions, judgments, behavior, decisions, and actions. Do not dismiss your accountability simply because implicit biases are triggered automatically without conscious awareness.