Recognizing and Accounting for Our Own Implicit Biases

Implicit bias is a tricky thing to root out. It’s a naturally occurring psychological phenomenon that helps us to navigate a complicated and ever-changing world. We all harbor biases and stereotypes based on our past experiences and socialization. Even young children exhibit implicit biases. Most of us are unaware of our biases because they operate at a subconscious level.

Implicit bias has been the subject of research for years, but lately, it has generated a great deal of attention from journalists, commentators, and the public, especially in relation to race. Fearing that the term “implicit bias” has taken on a particularly negative connotation in recent times, some experts have begun referring instead to “implicit associations” or “unconscious associations” in an effort to avoid defensive responses to the topic. This topic should not be as polarizing as it is. Getting beyond the defensiveness is so important because, left unchecked, our implicit biases can lead to dire consequences not only for the people to whom we are reacting, but to us, the ones who harbor the biases.

I am not a psychologist or sociologist and I have not read all of the extensive research on this topic. Based on my limited knowledge, however, here are a few key things to understand about implicit biases.

1. Literally everyone has them. Yes, that includes you. That includes people who are themselves members of disadvantaged, marginalized, and stereotyped groups. Implicit bias is not the same as overt bigotry. Even the most open-minded person in the world experiences gut reactions to new people based on past experiences she’s had with others who share similar characteristics or group identities. If you grew up in a house that was surrounded by red flowers, and every time you got near one of those flowers, you noticed a fragrant scent, you would develop a belief that all red flowers smell lovely. If you ventured outside of your own yard and happened to stumble upon a different kind of red flower, you would likely have a positive initial reaction to seeing it based on your experiences with the pleasant-smelling red flowers in your yard, even though this particular red flower is not the same as the others and has a very different scent. Your reaction to the new red flower is a result of implicit bias. This kind of conditioning affects all of us, though the specifics of our biases differ.

2. They don’t make you a bad person. As a whole, unconscious associations aren’t inherently good or bad; they just are. Some associations serve us well, and some are quite destructive. If we can learn to recognize them, we can decide which ones are helpful and which ones are harmful.

3. They’re not limited to race. Many if not most people harbor unconscious biases about other races, in part because skin color and facial features are so visible (of course, these biases are not based entirely on our own past interactions; they are influenced as well by the history of race relations in our society). But most of us also make implicit associations based on gender, national origin, religion, age, weight, sexual orientation, profession, fashion, socioeconomic status, and any number of other characteristics.

4. We even apply them to our own major life decisions. Research has shown that people’s positive self-associations can lead them to choose professions that sound like their names. People avoid living in places that remind them of their birth date. Recognizing these psychological factors can help us to make better choices.

5. They can keep us from experiencing all the gifts that our fellow human beings offer. This one is perhaps the most obvious, but it bears saying: when you judge a book by its cover, you miss out on the story. Implicit biases can lead us to hire someone who is not the best person for the job, to make poor investment and business decisions, and to forego what could be wonderful relationships and friendships. We must learn to recognize our unconscious associations if we want to avoid these consequences.

How can we, on an individual level, become more aware of our implicit biases and counteract their effects?

1. Observe and question your reactions. Mindfulness is very helpful here. Notice how you react to a new person or a news story. Are you making assumptions? Are you immediately dismissive, fearful, or angry? Ask yourself why. Your gut reaction often is not based on objective, factual information. Learning to observe your thoughts can help you to realize which ones are valid and which ones are not.

2. Take a quiz to reveal biases of which you may not be aware.

3. Expose yourself to a variety of people. Put yourself in uncomfortable social situations. Talk to people with whom you wouldn’t normally engage. Go to places that are new and different. Allow new experiences to alter your long-held associations.

4. Use predetermined criteria. When you are hiring an employee or selecting a contractor or service provider, make a list of criteria before you interview or meet with anyone. Use a checklist or scorecard to evaluate the candidates. It will help you to be more objective and rely less on your feelings.

5. Remember that your experience may not be representative, and that what applies to some or even most does not apply to all. Understand that your biases are probably based on anecdotal evidence, which is not reliable.

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One thought on “Recognizing and Accounting for Our Own Implicit Biases

  1. Implicit bias was one of the most interesting things I studied in my sociology program. It was one of the things I considered in my fieldwork course for the group I was observing. It helped me learn to recognize my own biases, and then question why those biases exist. I find it amazing how personal interactions have shaped or changed my own biases-sometimes for the better, sometimes not. But as you recommend, being mindful of one’s biases is a good start. 🙂

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