What is This Implicit Bias Thing I Keep Hearing About?

Most of us like to think of ourselves as fair and unbiased people. We are unlikely to see when we are treating groups differently based on some external factor. This brings us to implicit bias. Implicit bias is our stereotypes and thoughts about various groups that are outside of our awareness (unconscious), and they affect our understanding of and behaviors towards others. AND WE ALL HAVE IMPLICIT BIASES!

Gender Bias.

Studies on implicit gender bias are not new. For example, in 1974, a study found that when male college students were confronted with a successful female physician, they perceived her to be less competent than a male physician (Feldman-Summers & Kiesler, 1974). We may think that our attitudes towards women have evolved over the decades, and they have. However, implicit biases towards women still exist. An analysis of over 50 studies on this topic was conducted in 1996 and the results were remarkably consistent with the original 1974 study (Swim & Sanna, 1996). Men in these studies did not perceive themselves to be sexist and that is where the danger exists. If we are not aware of our biases, we are much less likely to see how it impacts the way that we treat others, and many times this can result in problematic outcomes for women.

For example, a study in the Journal of the American Heart Association, published in 2017 found that physicians' implicit gender biases may contribute to gender disparities in cardiovascular testing (Daugherty et al., 2017). Another study published in PNAS in 2017 found that science faculty's gender biases favor male students (Moss-Racusin et al., 2017). The researchers concluded that addressing the male faculty member's implicit gender biases could help in advancing the goal of increasing women's roles in science.

Again, we all have implicit biases. Women, not just men have implicit biases around gender. It would be helpful to all if we each spent time reflecting on what our assumptions about each gender are, and then spend some time challenging these assumptions. We can question whether or not these assumptions hold water. Are they true for everyone, whether woman or man? Is this belief a fact or something based on a personal experience? Are you treating people a certain way without knowing anything about them? Challenge yourself with these questions and I am sure that you will be surprised by what you recognize as a biased assumption versus a fact. 

Racial Bias.

A few weeks ago a white student at Yale called the police when she saw a black female student sleeping on a couch in the common area of a dormitory. The white student called the police assuming that the black woman was homeless and crashing on the couch. Why did she assume that this black student was homeless? Similarly, a few weeks earlier there were two incidents in Starbucks where the police were called because there were black men waiting for a while in the Starbucks and the Starbucks employee who called the police found this suspicious. The men who were waiting were real estate agents waiting to meet a client. This is interesting given that many people wait in Starbucks for clients or colleagues on a daily basis. Why did this incident warrant a call to the police?

Clearly the behavior that was demonstrated by all parties who called the police in these incidents is racist. However, the people calling the police were probably very unlikely to be aware that they were being racist in the moment and genuinely experienced the situation as one in which a call to the police was warranted. Why would something like this happen? Psychologists would call this a result of the Ultimate Attribution Error, a form of implicit bias. According to the Ultimate Attribution Error, in an ambiguous situation, people tend to make attributions consistent with their beliefs or prejudices. So for example, in the situation with the Yale student, if the person sleeping on the couch were white, the person who called the police may have assumed that the sleeping person was a tired and overworked student. However, since the student was black, the "ambiguous situation" was understood differently. It was understood in a manner consistent with racial prejudice. 

There have been quite a few studies recently on the effects of early childhood adversity and its impact on physical and mental health. There is evidence that early childhood adverse factors, including prejudice, influence gene expression and brain function. Further, according to epigenetic research, these adverse affects not just the generation experiencing them but multiple generations following (Rosenfield & Ziff, 2018). Diversity and inclusion education should be much more than just not stating racial comments or overtly engaging in racial behaviors. This education must include the development of awareness of implicit biases, and open and candid discussion about them. 

This has just been a small snapshot of what implicit bias can entail. In addition to gender and racial implicit bias, there is religious, generational, ethnic, sexual, and gender non-conforming implicit biases to name a few. If you have any additional questions, do not hesitate to email me.

If you have experienced bias in your life and have found that it has impacted you in a way that has caused you significant pain or has made it difficult to cope, you may wish to speak about it with a mental health professional. Similarly, if you have become aware of having implicit biases that disturb you and you wish to work on not having them be harmful to others, then you may also wish to speak with a mental health provider.