Implicit bias and how to tackle it: research summary

Implicit bias refers to the attitudes or stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions, and decisions in an unconscious manner. Implicit biases are activated involuntarily, unconsciously, and without one’s awareness or intentional control (see, e.g., Greenwald & Krieger, 2006; Kang, et al., 2012; Nier, 2005; Rudman, 2004a).

Our unconscious minds handle a tremendous amount of our cognition, even though we are completely unaware of it (Mlodinow, 2012).

Some data indicates that the brain can process roughly 11 million bits of information every second. The conscious mind handles no more than 40–50 of these information bits, with one estimate as low as a mere 16 bits (Kozak; Lewis, 2011; H. Ross, 2008). The unconscious mind handles the rest.

Implicit biases are robust and pervasive (Greenwald, et al., 1998; Kang & Lane, 2010; Nosek, Smyth, et al., 2007).

Everyone is susceptible to them, even people who believe themselves to be impartial or objective, such as judges. Implicit biases have even been documented in children (Baron & Banaji, 2006; Newheiser & Olson, 2012; Rutland, et al., 2005).

Because implicit associations arise outside of conscious awareness, these associations do not necessarily align with individuals’ openly-held beliefs or even reflect stances one would explicitly endorse (Graham & Lowery, 2004; Nosek, et al., 2002; Reskin, 2005).

Implicit biases and explicit biases are related yet distinct concepts; they are not mutually exclusive and may reinforce each other (Kang, 2009; Kang, et al., 2012; Wilson, et al., 2000).

Once an implicit association is activated, it is difficult to inhibit (Dasgupta, 2013). Despite what may feel like a natural inclination, attempts to de-bias by repressing biased thoughts are ineffective. Due to rebound effects, suppressing these automatic associations does not reduce them and may actually amplify them by making them hyper-accessible (Galinsky & Moskowitz, 2000, 2007; Macrae, et al., 1994).

A great way to de-bias is to openly acknowledge biases and then directly challenge or refute them. Our implicit biases are not permanent; they are malleable and can be changed by devoting intention, attention, and time to developing new associations (Blair, 2002; Dasgupta, 2013; Devine, 1989).

Time pressures create an environment in which unconscious biases can flourish (Bertrand, et al., 2005). Allowing adequate time for decision-making can help prevent unconscious biases being activated.

Adapted from http://cte.virginia.edu/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/2014-implicit-bias_pp.70-73.pdf

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