What Is Implicit Bias and What Can We Do About It?

October 19, 2017

implicit bias brain

Scoop Shop Sociology

Picture it: you’re rolling into your favorite local Scoop Shop primed to experience some much-needed ice cream euphoria. There are tons of flavors to choose from, of course, but that doesn’t stress you out—because you know exactly what you want: Half Baked. Why worry about any other options when cookie dough chunks and brownie bites taste so so good together?

But… have you ever thought about WHY you feel the way you do? Don’t get us wrong: we love Half Baked too. But how is that we’ve become conditioned to believe that certain things, like brownies and cookie dough, or peanut butter and jelly, go together perfectly while others don’t?

Maybe the bigger question is, what are we missing by never challenging our deepest assumptions?


There’s a Term for That...

Researchers have been thinking about this stuff for a while. The term they’ve come up with to describe how we seem to be programmed to unconsciously assume certain things about the world around us is implicit bias.

Our heads swim with thoughts and feelings all day long. If these thoughts and feelings are implicit, then we’re not aware we’re feeling or thinking them—and yet, they influence our behavior, sometimes in surprising ways.

All of us have biases too. A bias is a kind of unreasoned or reflexive judgment, the kind of judgment we don’t plan out or consciously create. We see a piece of metal painted bright orange and think “hot!” even though it may not be, just because that’s something we’ve become conditioned to expect. Our biases simply arise and assert themselves, usually as a result of our environment, our experiences, the culture around us, the media we watch or read, and so on.

We’re aware of some of our biases. When we’re getting ready to head out to the stadium to watch our favorite team, we don’t accidentally put on a jersey and paint our faces. We mean it! Go team! But other biases lurk below the surface, undetected. Sometimes, they might even go against some of our most cherished beliefs. That’s implicit bias.


Blame It on Cultural Stereotypes

Let’s say you’re a person who’s strongly opposed to ageism. You believe that no one should ever be discriminated against because of how old they are. And yet you catch yourself feeling disappointed when your new doctor looks to be elderly. Will she really be up on all the latest medical advances?

Or maybe when you saw the word “doctor” in the last paragraph, you imagined a man.

Culture creates stereotypes (about the elderly, about women, about peanut butter and jelly) and we’re all susceptible to them. Our implicit biases aren’t evidence of something inherently wrong with us (if you pictured a male doctor earlier, that doesn’t make you sexist; but the culture that set that bias in motion certainly is). However, when such biases go unexamined, they have a destructive effect on society.


Systemic Racism

Research suggests that humans are basically programmed through evolution to divide the social world into groups. We are prone to “intergroup bias”—we prefer those in our own group to “outsiders.” This helps explain everything from sports-team facepainting to prejudice.

Here’s where implicit bias has a serious impact. In the US, where most positions of power are still held by white people, “intergroup bias” leads to racism:

  • One study found that job applicants with white-sounding names get called back about 50% more often than applicants with black-sounding names, even when their resumes are exactly the same.
  • Another study showed that university professors responded more often to emails from students whose names suggested they were white males than to emails from students with names that sounded female, black, Hispanic, Indian, or Chinese.
  • Black drivers are pulled over more often by police, even though white drivers are more likely to have guns or drugs in the car. Research indicates that unfounded stereotypes about black criminality are exceptionally powerful in this country.

The examples, unfortunately, go on and on. All these hiring managers, professors, and police officers would certainly not consider themselves racist; and the truth is, they’re right. But systemic racism isn’t the result of evil racists doing evil racist things. It stems from, and is sustained by, our unexamined implicit biases.


How to Make Change Happen

The great news is that we really can turn things around.

  • A good first step would be to take this implicit bias test. The results might surprise you!
  • You might also consider signing up for a “bias cleanse,” a seven-day course of emails and tasks meant to challenge your personal biases.
  • Ask yourself tough questions about your beliefs. Talk to your friends and family about implicit bias and be really honest with each other about the difference between what you believe and how you act.
  • Get to know people who aren’t members of your “in” group; have conversations, try new things (and watch this powerful video from our friends at Demos).

We all need to challenge ourselves, in ways large and small. Next time you’re in a Scoop Shop, forget about what you think you know. Open your mind and try something you’ve never had before. You’ll be surprised by how much sweeter the world will taste.