Implicit Bias

I’m sorry, but I’m not familiar with that term you just mentioned—implicit bias. What are you talking about?

Oh, implicit bias? It’s a fascinating concept! Implicit biases are attitudes or stereotypes that we carry around with us unconsciously. These mental as­sociations influence our perceptions, actions, and decisions, yet because implicit biases are uncon­scious and involuntarily activated, we are not even aware that they exist.

So you’re saying that all of this occurs in my head without my knowledge? I’m a pretty self-aware person. I even meditate and engage in reflection exercises regularly. I seriously doubt there is much going on in my mind that I do not already know.

Research indicates that even the most self-aware people only have insights into a mere fraction of their brains because so much of our cognition is unconscious. Some studies suggest that the brain is capable of processing approximately 11 million bits of information every second, but our conscious mind can handle only 40–50 of those bits. Other research estimates that our conscious mind may only be capable of handling a mere 16 bits each second. That leaves the bulk of the mental pro­cessing to the unconscious.

You may be familiar with the iceberg analogy used often in psychology when discussing Freud. The visible part of the iceberg that exists above the surface of the water is a meager fraction of the structure’s overall size when you account for the bulk of it that is located underwater. In this analogy, the conscious mind is represented by the part of the iceberg that exists above the surface of the water, while the unconscious mind corresponds to the much larger portion of the iceberg. This analogy applies to conscious/unconscious pro­cessing. In fact, given that we consciously process such a tiny portion of our mental processes, it could almost be said that relative to the iceberg as a whole, we only are consciously aware of a portion of our cognition equivalent to a snowball on the top of the iceberg!

Where do these biases you’re talking about come from?

Everyone has implicit biases. The implicit associ­ations we harbor in our subconscious cause us to have feelings and attitudes about other people based on characteristics such as race, ethnici­ty, age, and appearance. Research suggests that these associations begin to develop very early in life as we’re exposed to both direct and indi­rect messages. Some studies have documented implicit biases in children as young as six years old. Beyond early life experiences, the media and news programming are often regarded as influ­encing individuals’ implicit biases. Keep in mind, though, that not all of the messages we’re talking about are blatant; many are quite subtle.

Wait a minute, everyone is biased? No, that can’t be right. I know I’m not biased. I have friends of all races and live in a very diverse community. I treat everyone equally.

Well, the reality is that everyone is susceptible to implicit biases. It’s important to keep in mind that there are lots of different types of implicit bias. It is possible that while you may not have a bias with respect to certain attributes, such as perhaps gender, you may hold biases related to age, race, or other characteristics. No one is completely free of implicit biases. Even the most egalitarian people, such as judges who devote their professional careers to fairness, possess these biases.

Come on, now. It’s completely obvious that biases and discrimination are considered unacceptable in modern society.

True, we have come a long way with respect to explicit bias, discrimination, and prejudice in our society. However, the reality remains that even though overt, explicit biases are less common, im­plicit biases remain incredibly pervasive.

You have to realize that the implicit biases we’ve been discussing are different from explicit biases. The main difference is that explicit biases are the ones that are consciously acknowledged, while implicit biases are those that we hold without intro­spective awareness of their existence. While these two concepts are related, they are very distinct.

What’s really fascinating—and may be helpful for you as you consider these ideas—is that our im­plicit associations do not necessarily align with our explicitly-held beliefs. For example, consid­er the stereotype that males are better at math than females. As a woman, I may consciously dis­agree with this stereotype; however, implicitly—in my unconscious—it’s perfectly possible that I may actually implicitly associate mathematic superiori­ty with men rather than women. This goes to show that you can actually hold biases against your own ingroup; in this case my bias would be against my ingroup of females. I may have internalized that im­plicit association, even though consciously I would strongly disagree with the notion that women are inferior to men with respect to mathematic abilities in any way.

I don’t know. It still all sounds like a bunch of psychological hokum to me. If I believe what you’re telling me about how even I’m unaware of associations I’m carrying around in my own head, how is anyone else able to prove they exist?

Psychologists have been working on instruments to assess implicit associations for many years. One of the most popular and sophisticated tech­niques that has emerged for assessing implicit biases is the Implicit Association Test, often called the IAT. This computerized test measures the rel­ative strength of associations between pairs of concepts. The IAT is designed as a sorting task in which individuals are asked to sort images or words that appear on a computer screen into one of two categories. The basic premise is that when two concepts are highly correlated, people are able to pair those concepts more quickly than two concepts that are not well associated.

So, for example, if I told you that every time the IAT prompted you with the word ‘thunder’ you should place it in the same category as ‘lightning,’ you probably wouldn’t have any problems with that task. It would come easily to you because, like most people, you associate lightning and thunder together without having to even think about it. But what if I then switched the categories and told you that every time you saw ‘lightning,’ you needed to place it in the same category as ‘milk.’ This would likely be much more difficult to do. It would prob­ably take you longer, and you’d almost certainly make more mistakes because lightning and milk are not concepts that you typically associate easily. The IAT measures the time differentials between how long it takes participants to pair concepts in different ways. The test’s categorizing tasks are completed quite quickly, and without having time to consciously think about the pairings, the test therefore is measuring the unconscious associa­tions people hold.

This example was pretty rudimentary, but the real IAT has much more insightful tests. One popular one assess how long it takes participants to cat­egorize Black and White faces respectively with “good words” (e.g., happiness, joy, etc.) versus “bad words” (e.g., terrible, angry, etc.). The racial group that individuals most quickly associate with the positive terms reflects a positive implicit bias towards that group. Extensive research has uncov­ered an implicit pro-White/anti-Black bias in most Americans.

I’m still not entirely sure why exactly I should care about implicit bias, especially if they’re just hidden away in the depths of our brains anyways. Does this mean anything for people’s everyday lives in the real world?

Of course! There are so many real world effects of implicit biases across a range of domains—employ­ment, criminal justice, health care, etc. Hundreds of scientific studies have been done to explore this phenomenon, and many of the findings are very compelling. Consider these examples:

In a video game that simulates what police offi­cers experience, research subjects were instruct­ed to “shoot” when an armed individual appeared on the screen and refrain from doing so when the target was instead holding an innocuous object such as a camera or wallet. Time constraints were built into the study so that participants were forced to make nearly instantaneous decisions, much like police officers often must do in real life. Find­ings indicated that participants tended to “shoot” armed targets more quickly when they were African American as opposed to White, and when participants refrained from “shooting” an armed target, these characters in the simulation tended to be White rather than African American. Research such as this highlights how implicit racial biases can influence decisions that have life or death consequences.

Or, consider the health care field. A 2012 study used identical case vignettes to examine how pe­diatricians’ implicit racial attitudes affect treatment recommendations for four common conditions that affect kids. Results indicated that as pediatricians’ pro-White implicit biases increased, they were more likely to prescribe painkillers for vignette subjects who were White as opposed to Black patients. This is just one example of how under­standing implicit racial biases may help explain differential health care treatment, even for youth.

Because these biases are activated on an un­conscious level, it’s not a matter of individuals knowingly acting in discriminatory ways. Implicit bias research tells us that you don’t have to have negative intent in order to have discriminatory outcomes. That’s a pretty huge statement, if you think about it.

I have to admit, this is all kind of fascinating. How can I learn more?

I would encourage you to go online and take the IAT. You’ll find it at here. There are so many different versions available, including ones that address race, age, sexu­ality, religion, skin tone, and a couple related to gender, among others. The tests are very straightforward, do not take very long to finish, and are incredibly insightful.


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