Implicit bias is often defined as beliefs or attitudes that affect our understanding, actions, and decisions in an unconscious manner. It can influence how we see others, judgments and decisions that we make. As human beings with implicit biases living in a diverse world, it’s important to be aware of the power these biases have on us so we can work to correct for them. In this blog post we will explore ways you can combat your own implicit bias.
However, before we can combat implicit bias, let’s make sure we are on the same page about what it is and what it isn’t.
What is implicit bias?
Implicit bias is an unconscious, automatic preference for one thing over another. It is also referred to as unconscious bias. What makes implicit bias so tricky is that it shows up without us even realizing it’s there. Implicit bias influences our everyday interactions and decisions on an unconscious level.
How is implicit bias/unconscious bias formed?
Implicit bias begins forming during childhood. We make associations between certain people groups and characteristics based on our experiences. These can be actual lived experiences, things we’ve seen in media, or heard from others. Those biases are then stored so deeply in our brains, in the amygdala to be exact, that we don’t even recognize it’s there.
Why does implicit bias exist?
Bias is an adaptation of our brains to keep us safe. Our brains process billions of pieces of information every day but we are only aware of about 2% of that work. Bias is one of the tools our brain uses to help automate the decision-making process.
Thanks to bias, and other brain adaptations, you’re not walking on the street analyzing each person you see and consciously asking yourself, “is he/she’s safe? Is it OK to walk here?”. Your brain uses previous experiences to decide whether or not the person or situation is safe. You don’t even notice the process happening.
Therefore, bias has nothing to do with your character. It is a normal adaptation of your brain. We all have biases.
How does unconscious bias work?
If I have lived my whole life in a white community amid cornfields and I am walking down the street in a big city surrounded by people of color, my brain is going to be on high alert. Since I am in a new context around new and unfamiliar people, my brain isn’t sure how to categorize it. However, once my brain has received enough input to classify the situation as safe, it will stop sending danger signals.
As a result, we all have our own individual biases based on lived experiences.
For example, if I’m a person of color who has always been treated poorly by white people and has seen lots of movies about people getting murdered in fields, walking through an all-white neighborhood in the middle of cornfields is going to put my brain on high alert. What feels safe and acceptable to one person can be another’s nightmare.
What are the types of implicit bias?
Before we can combat implicit bias, it is important to know that it isn’t all about race. We unconsciously make judgement based on many different factors. Here are just a few:
Racial bias: Preference for one race of people over another
Gender bias: Preferential treatment towards one gender over another
Ageism: Negative stereotyping of people based on age (typically either children or the elderly)
Affinity Bias: I call this cultural bias. Treating people better because they are more like you (likes, dislikes, religion, education, etc.)
Beauty Bias: Preferring one person over another based upon how attractive they are (or not) to you
Name Bias: Making judgments about people based on their name and nothing else
Perception Bias: I would venture to say this is what most of us think of when we talk about implicit bias. Perception bias is making judgments about people based on stereotypes or assumptions. All of the above categories are a form of perception bias.
How can implicit bias be harmful?
Implicit bias is harmful because it creates an environment that holds certain people back based solely upon their outward appearance or affinities. This keeps us, as a society, from reaching our full potential.
Unconscious bias leads us to make decisions about someone without taking the time to get to know the person.
What is the difference between implicit and explicit bias?
“Explicit bias” is a term used to describe our conscious beliefs and attitudes about a person or group. Often, our explicit biases are activated when we feel threatened.
For example, when COVID-19 hit, hate crimes toward Asians increased because the population at large felt threatened by the virus and was connecting the illness to the Asian community.
The main difference between implicit and explicit bias is that you are aware of your explicit biases and consciously deciding to employ them, or not, in a given situation.
Unlike implicit bias, your use of explicit bias does it say a little bit about your character.
How can you combat explicit bias?
Since explicit bias is something we are consciously aware of, it is easier to combat than implicit bias. It is a matter of noticing biased thoughts and choosing to modify them or make different choices.
Can implicit biases become explicit?
Yes! That is why tests, like the Harvard Implicit Bias test, are so helpful. They bring your implicit biases out into the light and allow you to choose whether or not to act on those biases.
For example, when I took the Harvard Implicit Bias Race test, I scored highly biased against people with dark skin.
Considering my husband is dark-skinned and I have spent a third of my life living and working among people of color, I was a little surprised and offended by my result. (Yes, my white fragility is showing.)
However, I did grow up in a primarily white community. I also noticed as I was taking the test that it was considerably more difficult for me to categorize the pictures of people with dark skin.
After getting the results, I took time to reflect and process using this printable implicit bias reflection sheet. Finally, I took that information with me out into the world and am using it to make different choices.
Having information about what my biases are gives me the opportunity to begin combatting my implicit biases.
Implicit Bias in Real Life
A week later, when I was Christmas decoration shopping with my son, we saw a black Santa on the shelf next to a white Santa. My son automatically picked up the white Santa. “Let’s get this one!” I’ll be honest my eyes went toward the white Santa first too.
With my implicit bias test results in mind, I decided to do a little experiment with my son.
“No,” I said “let’s get this one instead,” grabbing the black Santa. I watched his face fall. “Why did you want that one? Look, his belt is broken.”
“You’re right,” he said, grabbing the other Santa.
As we walked out of the store he saw another white Santa with an intact belt. “Look mommy, I found another one!”
“You’re right. I like the one we got better though. Why do you like that one so much?” I asked.
“I don’t know. I just do.” My son responded in an almost reflective tone.
That, my friends, was our implicit bias playing out in real life.
Now, I’m not trying to say that buying a black Santa is combatting unconscious bias. Not at all. What I am trying to show you is that bias shows up in little, tiny minuscule situations that we may not even notice unless we are looking for it.
Don’t believe me? Here are some more implicit bias scenarios to show you how unconscious bias shows up all around us.
Examples of implicit bias in the workplace:
-A woman goes into an interview wearing jeans and a t-shirt. The interviewer assumes that she’s not very professional.
-A white man who is ambitious and works hard might be seen as “driven” while an equally driven black woman may be called “aggressive”.
-In another example, one study found that resumes with female names were rated lower than those with male names.
-Another study showed that white interviewers tended to rate job candidates of color as less qualified than white candidates- even though there was no difference in qualifications between any of the interviewees!
-A mother with young children is perceived as less committed than a father who has kids the same age.
-Women managers may receive fewer rewards and recognition for their work compared to male peers, even when they have similar qualifications.
Examples of Implicit Bias in Education
-The stereotype that girls are not good at math
–Boys are more likely to get in trouble at school than girls, especially boys of color.
-The belief that people of color are better at sports
-Assuming Asians are smarter
-The whitewashing of curriculum, especially history
Examples of Implicit Bias in Healthcare
– Women physicians are less likely to be promoted or granted tenure than men.
– Women and people of color may not receive the same medical care as men, including lower doses of medications, tests and procedures.
– Gay patients often don’t feel comfortable disclosing their sexuality to their doctor due to the fear that they will be judged or refused treatment altogether.
– Black women are three times more likely to die from a pregnancy-related cause than White women.
Examples of Implicit Bias in Law Enforcement:
-Officers may stop and question someone with dark skin more often than they would a lighter-skinned person.
–Stereotypes about black men and violence may influence when officers decide to use force on suspects.
-Officers may assume that people of color are more likely to be involved in crime, which can lead to wrongful arrests.
-People with mental illness are sixteen times more likely to be killed by police officers than those without mental illness.
How Can You Combat Implicit Bias?
Recognize your bias
The first step is becoming aware of what implicit biases you have and thinking critically about how those biases are affecting your interactions with others.
I recommend taking the Harvard Implicit Bias Test and then using our implicit bias printable to help you reflect and process the results. Taking the time to explore your biases will make them slightly easier to combat because you are now aware that they exist.
Continually learn about bias.
Implicit bias trainings and books can be a helpful tool in your tool belt but they can’t be the only thing there. Head knowledge doesn’t always lead to action.
Bias is part of being human. We will never fully rid ourselves of them. However, it is important to take the time to reflect on our interactions frequently to see if bias is influencing the way we act with others.
Hold Yourself Accountable
Practice calling out your own biases when they pop up instead of letting them fester until someone else points it out to you.
Change Your Brain
Cognitive restructuring means changing how we understand information to change our emotional response to it. Basically it means giving your brain enough input to change the way it categorizes information, like what I described in the “how implicit bias works” section.
Practicing empathy is a great way to counteract implicit bias. Instead of just assuming your thoughts are the only correct ones, you take the time to see the situation from someone else’s perspective.
If you are in charge of hiring, try “blind hiring” which means that the only information you get is about a candidates qualifications, rather than race or gender identity. This way people are assessed for their abilities instead of their identities.
Get Out of Your Bubble
You need to meet people who think, talk, and live differently that you do in order to be able to practice empathy and see the world through someone else’s eyes. A big part of dismantling bias is interacting with people who aren’t exactly like you.
See People as Individuals,
Take the time to get to know each person for who he or she is instead of lumping everyone into groups based on stereotypes or previous experiences.
This one may seem odd but taking the time to slow down and notice what you are doing is exactly what you need to combat implicit bias, and exactly what mindfulness teaches us to do.
Have people to hold you accountable.
It is important to have people in your life who will correct you and help you work through missteps. This means you have to be open to receiving correction and learn from it. If you aren’t sure what that looks like, this next paragraph is for you.
What you can do if someone has hurt or offended you because of their unconscious biases?
If someone has hurt or offended you because of their unconscious biases then it is important to try and understand where they are coming from (ie use empathy). First, clear the air by telling them how what they said made you feel instead of bottling up your emotions until they explode later on.
Next, ask them why they feel this way so that you can better understand their perspective. Don’t immediately assume it’s because of hatred or ill will.
Finally, try not to be defensive if someone says something about your own biases!
Everyone has implicit bias. It’s important to be open with each other so that we can learn from our mistakes.
When it comes down to it, implicit bias is a natural part of the human experience because we are all products of our own experiences. In order to combat implicit bias, you need to be aware that it exists and learn how to manage your bias instead of letting it control you!