Implicit bias is the tendency to make an assumption about a person because he or she is a part of a social group. Such thoughts are unconscious and likely to persist in your mind even if you speak against them. These biases lead to unintended actions and negative consequences without your knowledge.
ZitKon is a Fortune 100 company with over 1 million employees. For the past 5 years, the organization has seen a steep growth curve, thanks to its founder, who operated as the CEO for the last 20 years.
In a recent move, ZitKon has decided to pass the reigns to a 23 year old lady, who will operate as the CEO from the first week of next month.
What went through your mind as you read the last line? Were they on the lines of:
- What? Why such a young person? And a lady?
- Oh my. They’re going to lose all they’ve made due to this change.
- That’s a great change. Young leaders are the future.
- How will a 23-year old manage a workforce of 1 million?
Whether a young leader is appropriate for an organization is a separate discussion altogether. But, you made an assumption due to your implicit biases because she belonged to two different groups – women and youngsters.
Neither have you met the person nor do you know about her work ethic. Heck, you don’t even know her name. Yet, your mind jumped to a conclusion even before you read the next sentence, didn’t it?
Such thoughts which pop up in your head unconsciously are implicit biases. By the way, ZitKon is a hypothetical company that I made up.
In this article, we’ll discuss what implicit bias is, the different types of assumptions we make, the reason why they occur, and ways to reduce the consequences of such thoughts.
- What is implicit bias?
- Examples of implicit bias:
- Why does implicit bias occur?
- Research conducted:
- How to reduce implicit bias?
What is implicit bias?
Implicit bias is a tendency to assume that a person exhibits(or will exhibit) specific characteristics because he/she belongs to a specific group.
Groups here do not only refer to the typical definition of an extremist gang, a religious sect, a radical cult, a social circle, or a political party. Implicit biases occur with common groups such as gender, race, region, age, and many others.
Such thoughts are usually unconscious and you’re neither aware that they exist in you nor that they’re influencing your behavior. You assume you’re making a judgment based on your knowledge or past experience. But, you fail to take into account that you have generalized your impression about a large group based on a few examples or due to what you’ve heard from others.
Examples of implicit bias:
Let’s go through different examples from real-life situations which indicate how implicit bias takes effect. While you read through them, ask yourself if you’re susceptible to such behavior. By instinct, you’ll assume such thoughts don’t occur in your mind, but that could be due to your denial than goodness. Implicit bias is hard to spot in yourself, so you’ll have to make an effort.
1. Beauty and brains
Clara, a young lady joins the company you’re working for and sits on the same floor as do. Her beauty is exquisite and to add to that, she carries an incredible dressing sense.
Without knowing more information, how would you rate her work skills? Poor, average, or high.
Most people would rate her average at best. That’s because your implicit bias tells you that a beautiful woman cannot be intelligent too.
But, does beauty inhibit intelligence like height inhibits Olympic running records?
2. Asians and math
Zhang Wei has just joined a new high school in New York. What do you think his favorite subject is?
Without knowing anything other than his name, you’d guess Math, because you’ve heard that Asians are good at math.
But neither does every kid in Asia love math nor can they mentally multiply long random numbers in a split second.
3. Indians and meat
Arjun, an Indian, recently moved to Colorado to pursue his career. He’s a friend of your childhood buddy, Adam. The three of you are out for lunch one day, and you find Arjun looking at the menu. A minute later, he orders a hamburger. You exclaim, “Oh, so you eat ham?”
You have assumed that all Indians don’t eat ham. Maybe Arjun’s religion allows him to eat anything he likes. Maybe he isn’t a religious person at all.
4. Age and work skills
Paul, a 54 year old person joins your team as a programmer. You’re working in a start-up whose majority workforce is either 20 or 30-year-olds. What would you think about Paul?
You’d assume he carries the old mindset of working long hours, programming in older technologies, or taking a long time to finish the job.
But Paul might have developed his experience over decades, kept himself well versed with the latest technologies, and possess programming skills better than any other person in the organization.
5. Women in senior executive positions
Madison and Steve are the two contenders to take up the COO role at a large firm. Who among the two do you think is more likely to bag the position?
Your brain leans towards Steve than Madison because of gender. Even if you’re in the support of women empowerment, by nature, your first thought for work promotions favors men over women.
You’ll notice such bias against gender in different fields. One such example is the discrimination that has occurred at competitive chess. Bobby Fischer considered women participants weak and stupid. Gary Kasparov once said “It all comes down to the imperfections of the feminine psyche. No woman can sustain a prolonged battle.” Years later, he lost to Judit Polgar and revised his opinion saying “The Polgars showed that there are no inherent limitations to their aptitude—an idea that many male players refused to accept until they had unceremoniously been crushed by a twelve-year-old with a ponytail.”
Until 1986, World Chess Championship was a men’s title. Today, it is held as an open contest for any gender-based on ELO points.
6. Bias against pet breeds
Implicit bias not only applies to groups of human beings, but also to animals. How would you react when you meet a labrador? You’d pat its head, squeeze its ears and play for a minute or two.
Now, would you react the same way with a pitbull or a rottweiler? I doubt it. Since they have a name for ferocity, you assume the dog in front of you shares the same characteristics.
Why does implicit bias occur?
As you read through the above examples, implicit bias appears to be a flaw in your mental machinery. But it isn’t. Your brain has to make split-second decisions to navigate through life. A part of this process involves recognizing and spotting patterns, both consciously and unconsciously.
Unconscious pattern recognition:
- Every day your brain identifies and uses patterns without deliberate thought. For example:
- You can spot a slipping kid before he falls(His erratic movement is your pattern)
- You can identify most fruits(The shape and colors are your patterns)
You can differentiate employees from customers even if you’re visiting an outlet for the first time(the uniform, facial expression, and body language are your patterns)
Though you assess such information without any thought, for your brain those are patterns. Over the years, you have learned to make instant decisions using such cues. Without them, you’d have to process the information using all your senses and make a calculated decision. That’s not only slower but also energy-intensive.
Conscious pattern recognition:
- Investment: You research and find the best stocks to invest
- Job hunt: You explore different organizations and apply at a few that suit your need best
- Shopping: You compare the pros and cons of different TVs before buying one
Your brain can identify complex patterns as the above and make thoughtful decisions. But, such a process would require a large amount of energy and your body cannot fuel it for every small task or action. Therefore, your brain prefers to take shortcuts to navigate through life by forming habits.
You might feel that you must train your brain to reduce recognizing unconscious patterns and apply more thought to all your actions. But, is that the most efficient way to use your brain? Not at all. Imagine, if you had to think every time you crack an egg, tie your shoe laces, or ride the bicycle. You’d run out of mental energy within the first few hours of the day. Therefore, both conscious and unconscious pattern recognition have to work in tandem to create meaningful blindness to help a human being live normally.
Kahneman and Tversky explain how we have System 1 and System 2 within our brain.
System 1 is quick to react and make a decision. When you act without any deliberate thought, it’s your system 1 in effect.
But, did you know that all your emotions originate from system 1 too? It’s nature’s way of avoiding the need to save time and energy in making a decision.
System 2 is far slower, but a lot more logical and thoughtful in comparison. If you need time to process your thought, analyze, calculate, consider pros and cons, it’s your system 2 that does the job. All your rational thought and critical thinking are handled by system 2.
Examples of situations where your system 1 handles the action:
- Adding 10+10
- Identifying your brother by his looks
- Holding a casual conversation with your best friend
Examples where system 2 handles the action:
- Multiplying 23*37
- Deciding to invest your money
- Trying to invent a new product and start a business
You cannot always control which system takes effect for a given scenario. Often system 1 jumps into action even if you want system 2 to apply itself. Let’s try a simple activity to see it in effect.
A bat and a ball cost 1.10$ in total. The bat costs 1 dollar more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?
Did you answer 0.10$? Well, that’s the wrong answer. If the ball costs 0.10$, the bat should cost 1.10$ adding up to 1.20$. The right answer is, the ball costs 0.05$, and the bat costs 1.05$.
Your system 1 will prompt you with the wrong answer unless you have heard the puzzle before. The smarter people suspect something fishy due to the simplicity of the question and pause for a second to confirm. That’s when system 2 takes control and finds the right answer.
The example illustrates how both these systems work together. System 1 is all your overall knowledge summed up together and ready for access in a fraction of a second. But due to its speed, it is prone to errors. System 2 takes deliberate effort and won’t take effect unless you choose to. But when it steps in, you will make a mindful decision. System 2 is slow but calculative.
Different psychologists have performed a variety of research to measure the presence and effect of implicit bias. Below are some of those studies along with the reference to the research paper in case you want to read more details
Women and science:
Society believes that young girls are most suited for language than for math.
Other studies have shown similar behavior in fields such as science, technology, and engineering. Though corporates promote equality of the sexes, research has shown that men are promoted more often than women.
Even teachers have shown implicit bias towards boys in math, the foundational subject behind science, technology, and engineering.
None of this selective treatment is intentional. In fact, some people who favored men in their behaviors and actions, are strong advocates of promoting equality of sexes. Despite the belief, their brain managed to unconsciously take sides in specific areas without their knowledge.
Bertrand and Mullainathan, in 2004 presented a study where they unearthed data that black applicants received 50% fewer callbacks on job applications compared to the whites.
Banaji and Greenwald, in 1995 presented a paper in which they studied human social behavior. You believe that your social etiquette is deliberate and thoughtful, but this study shows how past experiences and beliefs unintentionally influence your judgments in the present.
Banaji and Greenwald, in 1995 studied the relationship between names and fame. Their results showed that the people associate fame more strongly with men than women, hinting at unconscious gender bias.
Studies have shown that though physicians take a vow of treating everyone equally, their actions don’t reflect the same. Women and people from racial minorities receive subpar diagnoses, treatment options, and pain management techniques. The outcomes are worse too. Black children don’t get the compassion and care other children do.
Legal systems and police authorities are vulnerable to such biases too. Studies have shown that a cop is more likely to shoot a black civilian than a white even if he/she is unarmed. Blacks have higher arrest rates and are sentenced to harsher punishments. Black juveniles have a higher chance of being tried as an adult.
Most people are shocked when they read the results of such studies, but, unfortunately, these are facts. Several of these studies were replicated in different settings, but the outcomes turned out similar.
One thing is for sure – implicit bias is real and it penetrates into people of all professions, ages, gender, and values. You can yell at the top of your lungs that you’re against discrimination, but you will stereotype people on your first instinct because that’s wired in your DNA.
How to reduce implicit bias?
You can fight implicit bias and reduce the dangerous consequences it can lead to. However, you can neither stop yourself from stereotyping people nor eliminate the phenomenon. Your best response is to spot such behavior in yourself and take corrective action.
Ignorance is the implicit bias’s strongest weapon. Since the behavior is unconscious, you’re unaware that you’re a victim of such thoughts. You can take evasive action only after you know such cognitive biases exist. If you hadn’t read about this topic, you’d never know that you’re mind was making erroneous generalizations every day.
The second weapon which makes the bias more rampant is denial. Even after knowing these biases, you have a strong tendency to deny that you stereotype people in such ways. You will spot others making such flawed assumptions, but fail to see your own mistakes.
Awareness of implicit biases serves no purpose if you’re not willing to spot and accept such behavior in yourself. Unfortunately, people consider themselves to have better ethical values than others. Newsflash – you don’t. Neither you nor me are exceptions. It’s pure science, my friend.
3. Pause and reflect
Take a moment to reflect on your decisions before jumping into action. Your mind possesses incredible processing speed no matter what your IQ is. Half a second suffices to correct erroneous judgments, incorrect decisions, and shabby actions.
A pause won’t stop notorious thoughts from originating in your mind, but it can help you avoid the consequences that follow.
A 2016 study by Lueke and Gibson showed that meditation increases our awareness of the present and helps reduce the effect of implicit bias. Participants who listened to specific controlled audio performed better on the IAT tests. The experiment concluded that any mindfulness exercises can help you avoid jumping to conclusions due to such cognitive biases.
As mentioned under ‘Awareness’, implicit bias has a strong influence on people because they’re unaware of it. Schools teach good values such as equality, respect, and courtesy to avoid the consequences of the bias, but such lessons are indirect. Unless you study psychology or read books on your own, you’ll remain unaware of the existence of such mental flaws.
Many corporates have introduced training sessions to encourage diversity and respect for each other. The larger organizations have dedicated staff for teaching such etiquettes. The training sessions explain how people differ and how one must understand different perspectives.
However, psychologists have claimed that such corporate training doesn’t work and can even cause a rebound effect in the long run.
6. Meet more people
Another way to reduce quick assumptions about people is to meet more people. As you exchange thoughts and share experiences, you’ll learn different perspectives, backgrounds, and mindsets of people. The positive and negative experiences will help you understand cultures and such knowledge can offer a logical explanation to the behavior of specific groups that you previously stereotyped.
If you have wide exposure and carry an open mind, you’re less likely to make an erroneous assumption about people.
Though implicit bias has gone through extensive research studies, several psychologists have questioned its validity. Researchers dug into 426 studies involving over 70,000 participants using the IAT tests. They declared that they only found a weak correlation between implicit bias and discrimination and that there was no strong evidence to indicate that implicit bias causes a change in behavior. Other researchers have questioned the validity of the IAT tests.
Articles on the Wall Street Journal have criticized the whole concept of implicit bias and mentioned that it was fueled by political agenda than real science.
Greenwald and Banaji examined the evidence submitted by other researchers and agreed that IAT does not predict biased behavior and that it should not be used to assess if a person will exhibit discriminatory behavior. They did stick to the core concept of implicit bias and argued that there was enough evidence to support the theory and that such stereotyping causes a significant impact on society.
Studies show that our minds can make quick judgments based on the group a person belongs to. But, whether such thoughts lead to discriminatory actions is debatable. As it currently stands, no conclusive scientific evidence supports the claim.
But you cannot dismiss implicit bias altogether. If you’re more mindful, you’ll notice the consequences of the phenomenon in your daily life. So, use the newfound knowledge to know yourself better. Even if you’re not the kind of person who’d indulge in stupid actions based on the thoughts invoked by implicit bias, the awareness of the flaws of your mind can make you a better person.
Leaper C, Farkas T, Brown CS. Adolescent girls’ experiences and gender-related beliefs in relation to their motivation in math/science and english. J Youth Adolesc. 2012 Mar;41(3):268-82. doi: 10.1007/s10964-011-9693-z. Epub 2011 Jul 16. PMID: 21769612.
Michela Carlana, Implicit Stereotypes: Evidence from Teachers’ Gender Bias, The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Volume 134, Issue 3, August 2019, Pages 1163–1224, https://doi.org/10.1093/qje/qjz008
Bertrand, M., & Mullainathan, S. (2003, July 28). Are Emily and Greg More Employable than Lakisha and Jamal? A Field Experiment on Labor Market Discrimination. NBER. https://www.nber.org/papers/w9873.
Chapman, E. N., Kaatz, A., & Carnes, M. (2013). Physicians and implicit bias: how doctors may unwittingly perpetuate health care disparities. Journal of general internal medicine, 28(11), 1504–1510. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11606-013-2441-1
Schwartz S. A. (2020). Police brutality and racism in America. Explore (New York, N.Y.), 16(5), 280–282. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.explore.2020.06.010
Lueke, Adam & Gibson, Bryan. (2014). Mindfulness Meditation Reduces Implicit Age and Race Bias. Social Psychological and Personality Science. 6. 10.1177/1948550614559651.
Ruhl, C. (2020, July 1). Implicit or Unconscious Bias. Implicit Bias | Simply Psychology. https://www.simplypsychology.org/implicit-bias.html.
Maxim Dsouza has spent over a decade experimenting and finding various time management techniques to improve his productivity. He strongly understands the fact that time is a limited commodity and tries to make every second count. He has extensive experience in leadership in startups, small businesses, and large corporations.
He has helped people of different professions and age groups gain clarity on their goals, improve focus, revise their time management skills and develop an awareness of their psychological cognitive biases.