What is Implicit Bias – Causes & Examples
Published byat August 16th, 2023 , Revised On October 5, 2023
Implicit bias is a concept that has gained significant attention in the realms of psychology, sociology, and even corporate training. While the term might sound complicated, its core idea is straightforward, backed by scholarly source research.
Let’s understand what implicit bias means, its causes, and examples to understand this subconscious phenomenon better.
What is Implicit Bias
Implicit bias refers to the attitudes or stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions, and decisions unconsciously. These biases, which are a form of cognitive bias, are activated involuntarily, without an individual’s awareness or intentional control. They can be positive or negative and are directed towards age, appearance, race, ethnicity, gender, social class, etc.
Key Points About Implicit Bias Include:
Pervasiveness: Everyone possesses them, even if they are not unaware.
Different from Conscious Beliefs: Implicit biases can contradict a person’s explicit beliefs. For instance, someone who consciously believes that men and women are equally competent might still unconsciously associate men with careers and women with family, which is an example of explicit bias.
Malleable: Implicit biases are not fixed. They can be changed, as brain associations are malleable and can be modified by experiences.
Real-world Effects: These biases can influence actions and decisions in real-world situations. For example, they can affect how individuals perceive and interact with others, potentially leading to issues like discrimination in hiring, law enforcement, and medical treatment.
Are Implicit and Unconscious Bias the Same
“Implicit bias” and “unconscious bias” are terms often used interchangeably, but they have nuanced differences in meaning. Actor-observer bias can play a role in how one perceives these terms.
As previously explained, implicit bias refers to attitudes or stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions, and decisions in an unconscious manner. These biases are activated without our conscious awareness and can both stem from and reinforce existing stereotypes and prejudices.
Unconscious bias is a broader term encompassing all biases that operate without an individual’s conscious knowledge, not just attitudes or stereotypes. It covers a wide range of automatic mental shortcuts, including, but not limited to, those based on social categories like race, gender, or age.
While all implicit biases are unconscious, not all unconscious biases are necessarily based on societal attitudes or stereotypes. In general discourse, however, the terms are often used to discuss the same phenomena, especially when addressing issues like discrimination or inequality.
What are the Causes of Implicit Bias
Implicit bias refers to the attitudes or stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions, and decisions in an unconscious manner. These biases reside deep in our subconscious and can influence how we think about and treat others based on their race, gender, ethnicity, age, disability, or other identifying characteristics.
People who consciously reject prejudice can still hold and act on these biases without realising it. A bias for action can sometimes exacerbate this. Understanding the causes of implicit bias can help individuals and societies address and mitigate its effects. Here are some factors that contribute to its development:
Some theories suggest that the human brain has evolved to categorise objects and people to determine potential threats quickly. This “us vs them” categorisation might be an evolutionary relic, helpful for survival in ancestral environments but less so in our diverse modern world.
Exposure to Stereotypes
Media, literature, family members, peers, and other cultural sources perpetuate certain stereotypes. For example, if certain racial groups are predominantly shown as criminals on TV, viewers may subconsciously associate that group with criminal behaviour.
Early Life Experiences
Our upbringing and the environments we’re exposed to in our formative years can significantly shape our implicit biases. If a child is only exposed to one culture or race, they might develop biases against those they’re unfamiliar with.
Brain’s Preference for Simplicity
The human brain prefers to take cognitive shortcuts to process information quickly. Stereotypes can become these shortcuts, allowing for rapid (though potentially inaccurate) assessments of people and situations.
People learn from observing the behaviours, reactions, and attitudes of those around them. If a child sees their parents acting wary around certain groups, they might internalise those biases.
Certain norms and biases are so deeply ingrained in many cultures that they’re passed down from generation to generation. This cultural conditioning can shape the implicit biases of individuals within that culture.
Lack of Exposure
A lack of genuine, personal interactions with diverse groups can reinforce biases. For instance, if someone never has meaningful interactions with individuals from a particular country, their opinions may be based solely on stereotypes.
The brain often makes connections based purely on repeated exposure. If someone repeatedly sees two unrelated things (like a specific ethnic group and poverty), they might unconsciously associate them, even if there’s no causal relationship.
People tend to align their attitudes and beliefs to fit their actions. If someone acts in a discriminatory way (even unintentionally), they might adjust their beliefs to justify their actions, solidifying implicit bias.
Once we hold a belief or bias, we are more likely to search for, interpret, and remember information that confirms that belief. This can further entrench implicit biases.
Real-world Consequences of Implicit Bias
Implicit biases, while subconscious, have very tangible and real-world consequences. They can impact almost every facet of society, from education and employment to healthcare and the criminal justice system. Here are some of the real-world consequences of implicit bias:
Hiring managers might unconsciously favour candidates who share their own racial or cultural background. Studies have shown that simply having a name that sounds “ethnic” or “foreign” can decrease the chances of getting a callback for a job interview.
Research has suggested that implicit biases among healthcare professionals can influence medical decisions and patients’ quality of care. For instance, some studies have found racial and ethnic disparities in pain management, with minority patients sometimes receiving lower levels of care.
Implicit biases can influence the actions of law enforcement officers, from who they decide to stop and search to decisions about the use of force. They can also impact jury decisions and sentencing by judges.
Pygmalion Effect on Education
Teachers’ implicit biases might affect their expectations and evaluations of students. For example, a teacher might unconsciously believe boys are better at maths and offer male students more support and encouragement, reinforcing gender disparities.
People might subconsciously judge potential tenants or buyers based on race, gender, or other factors, leading to discrimination. This can influence where people live and affect their access to good schools, jobs, and other opportunities.
Implicit biases can shape our everyday interactions with others. People might avoid making eye contact, crossing the street, or even just striking up a conversation based on unfounded biases about someone else’s background or intentions.
Due to their implicit biases, media professionals might portray certain groups in stereotypical or negative ways, perpetuating biases among their audiences.
Implicit biases can influence purchasing decisions. For instance, consumers might subconsciously avoid products associated with certain racial or ethnic groups or assume products marketed towards a specific gender are not suitable for the opposite gender.
Implicit biases can sway voters’ choices and opinions on policies, leading to potential support for policies that might further institutionalise those biases.
Because of the biases, attorneys might decide to represent or not represent someone based on irrelevant personal characteristics. Additionally, witnesses might be influenced by their biases in what they recall or how they interpret events.
Relationships and Social Networks
Implicit biases can determine whom we form relationships with, leading to homogenous social circles reinforcing our beliefs and biases.
How to Overcome Implicit Bias
Overcoming implicit bias is essential for fostering understanding and promoting fairness in various situations. The following steps, taken from both primary source and secondary source research, can help individuals confront and overcome these biases:
Awareness and Education
- Recognise that everyone has biases.
- Take online tests like the Implicit Association Test (IAT) to identify your biases.
- Educate yourself about the negative effects of biases on individuals and society.
- Interact with diverse groups of people to challenge and expand your worldview.
- Attend cultural events, workshops, or seminars to learn about different backgrounds.
- Pause before making a decision to check for any biases influencing you.
- Encourage group decision-making processes to balance out individual biases.
Empathy and Perspective Taking
- Actively try to see the world from another person’s perspective.
- Engage in active listening to truly understand others’ experiences.
- Identify and question stereotypes in media, conversations, and your own thoughts.
- Correct and confront biased statements when you encounter them.
- Encourage others to point out when they notice biased behaviour in you.
- Reflect on and accept constructive feedback.
Diversify Your Environment
- Surround yourself with diverse groups of people in personal, professional, and social contexts.
- Consume diverse media, including books, films, and articles from various cultural perspectives.
- Stay updated on research and literature regarding implicit bias.
- Use a robust source evaluation method to ensure you are accessing reliable information.
- Attend training sessions or workshops to deepen your understanding and skills.
- Dedicate regular time to introspect about your behaviours and decisions.
- Maintain a journal to note down and analyse instances where bias might have played a role.
Implement Structural Changes
- If you are in a position of power, incorporate bias checks in hiring, promoting, and evaluating processes.
- Advocate for diversity and inclusion initiatives in your organisation.
- Set personal goals and check-ins to monitor your progress in combating implicit bias.
- Engage with communities or groups that focus on addressing and overcoming biases.
- Share resources and knowledge about implicit bias with peers, family, and colleagues.
- Lead by example and inspire others to take steps in recognising and addressing their own biases.
Examples of Implicit Bias
Frequently Asked Questions
Implicit bias and unconscious bias are often used interchangeably. Both refer to automatic, unintentional prejudices or favouritisms that influence one’s actions and decisions. These biases can stem from one’s background, personal experiences, societal stereotypes, or cultural context, and they operate outside conscious awareness, influencing behaviour without one realising it.
While implicit biases are unconscious and automatic, individuals are responsible for recognising and addressing them. Awareness and intentional self-reflection can help in understanding these biases. Actively seeking education and experiences challenging these biases can lead to personal growth and promote more equitable behaviours and decisions.
Completely eradicating implicit bias is challenging due to its deep-rooted nature. However, individuals can reduce their influence through awareness, education, and exposure to diverse perspectives and experiences. Training, continuous self-reflection, and challenging stereotypes are vital steps toward mitigating and managing the effects of implicit bias on behaviour and decisions.
Yes, implicit bias can significantly influence behaviour. These unconscious prejudices can affect decisions and actions in various contexts, from daily interactions to professional settings. Such biases can lead to stereotyping, discrimination, and unintended perpetuation of societal inequities. Recognising and addressing them is essential to ensure fair and equitable behaviours.
The Harvard Implicit Association Test (IAT) is widely used to measure implicit biases. While it has been influential in raising awareness about unconscious biases, its validity and reliability have been debated. Some critics argue that it may not predict individual behaviour consistently. However, it can reveal general patterns of biases.
Controlled environments can foster implicit bias by limiting exposure to diverse perspectives and experiences. When individuals are isolated from varied viewpoints and cultures, stereotypes and misconceptions can flourish unchallenged. Publication bias can play a role, as only certain views or findings get highlighted, leaving others in the shadow.