We are all a little biased, even if we don’t know it. Implicit bias was the shorthand that allowed our distant ancestors to make split-second decisions (friend or foe?) based on incomplete information. It provided a razor-thin reaction-time advantage that could mean life or death. But today, we no longer need to assume that people who do not look or sound like us pose an immediate threat. Instead, successful organizations and people welcome those who do not necessarily look, think, and act like they do. We must overcome that implicit bias wired into the human DNA if we are to reap the benefits of diversity.
What’s inside us reflects how we see objectively
Implicit bias is the mind’s way of making uncontrolled and automatic associations between two concepts very quickly. In many forms, implicit bias is a healthy human adaptation — it’s among the mental tools that help you mindlessly navigate your commute each morning. The science of how this submerged bias affects our actions is still a work in progress; studies have found a link between the biases and specific actions in some situations but not others. But because this bias is a function of universal human psychology, researchers say, we all experience it — and you can’t exactly get “rid” of it.
Implicit bias is an umbrella term for a variety of attitudes, beliefs, knowledge and stereotypes that we all carry to some degree. They tend to be automatically triggered, hard to control and can often influence what we say and do without our awareness. our mind picks up on patterns that we see in society, the media and other places and forms snap judgements before we have time to process all the information in a more deliberative and controlled manner.
Implicit bias is formed and trapped in the subconscious by years of teachings, experiences, and other environmental and social influences. It exists beneath the surface. Our implicit biases function as an unfortunate default position for the brain in times of controversy, conflict, and disagreement.
This explains why people of different races, genders, cultures, and orientations sometimes run to opposite philosophical corners in times of conflict – even when we hold one another in high esteem and have similar world views, and regardless of the facts.
The troubling thing about implicit bias is that it is insidious, hiding in the recesses of the brain. Implicit bias can be so dormant that we are offended by the very suggestion that it exists within us. Whether in times of harmony or conflict, when we are confronted about our obvious biases, we are quick to deny with the common response that “I have friends” who are members of the group at issue.
On the other hand, overt bias – bigotry and racism – operate in the conscious areas of the brain and the heart. They do so in relative comfort, constrained only by self-interest and cowardice.
Most people are sincerely confident that they do not fall into the category of bigot. At the same time, too many really good people are unaware that they are captive to their subconscious biases, even to a point that it renders them incapable of making meaningful and effective contributions to the dialogue, too often at the most critical moments.
Psychologist and author Stephen Joseph opines that outer authenticity is reflected by “how well what we say and do matches up with what is really going on inside us.” He further opines that inner authenticity is reflected by “how well we actually know ourselves and are aware of our inner states.”
By these definitions, the boldest bigot can have outer authenticity. At the same time, the people most dedicated to social progress can lack inner authenticity because in an instant their brains can be triggered to default to the biased beliefs that they learned as children.
Implicit bias is just one of many psychological processes that shape how we interact with one another. We also tend to be better at remembering the faces of people in our own racial group, or to subconsciously favor people in our group. The fear of being stereotyped psychologically weighs on people, too. The challenge, is not to eliminate biases, but to try to interrupt them so we can act more often in ways that line up with our values. Researchers, though, still have a lot to learn about how to do that.
Testing Implicit Bias
One way to reliably measure implicit bias is through the Implicit Association Test (IAT), a timed computer-based measure (developed at Harvard University) that can detect “blind spots” in one’s thinking.