Lesson 3: Implicit Bias

3.1 Implicit Bias

Two slices of bread with peanut butter on one, and jelly on the other.

If I say the word peanut butter, what word comes to mind for you? For many people the immediate answer is the word jelly. Despite the many other options— apple, cookie, bananas, raisins, chocolate, etc.— it is most often jelly that comes to mind. When someone says salt, you might think pepper. Perhaps if you’re more rhythmically inclined, if I say salt, you think pepa, but either way, there is likely something that comes first to your mind. This can also work for people as well; if I say I’m talking about a famous Justin, there is likely a last name that comes to mind for you or a face of a specific celebrity.

The reason for this is that your brain likes to create associations. It is easier to recall information if it’s grouped with other information, and the brain has an easier time organizing information if it fits neatly into groups and categories. The more frequently one word is paired in another, the faster they will recall each other and with less prompting. With paintings or groupings we hear most often, we likely won’t even notice the association we have between two words until it is brought to our attention. Word association games can be fun ways of uncovering relationships and connections our brain has made between different words and concepts.

Definition:

Implicit Biases are multidirectional, unconscious attributions of qualities to members of different social identity groups. They can be both positive and negative. Wherever we have a negative implicit bias, there is also a corresponding positive one we may be unaware of and vice versa.

We can think of our biases as byproducts of the cycle of socialization explored in Lesson 2. They’re powerful and particularly important to reflect on for a number of reasons. For one thing, they tend to be much better predictors of behavior than our explicit or articulated biases. For another, interrogating our biases allows for us to align articulated values with our behaviors better.

Implicit Bias: Peanut Butter, Jelly and Racism

“implicit bias” “implicit bias” “implicit bias” 2016 was the year that implicit bias went somewhat mainstream. “Yeah, so when Hillary Clinton mentioned implicit bias in the debates, our phones started blowing up. All our friends started emailing us about it.” But what is implicit bias? Implicit biases are basically thought processes that happen without you even knowing it. Little mental shortcuts that hold judgments you might not agree with. And sometimes those shortcuts are based on race. First, some clarity: Saying someone has an implicit bias is different from calling someone a racist. “The word ‘racist’ is a highly loaded term right here in American society. A lot of times when people are using it, they’re thinking of the kind of old-fashioned Ku Klux Klan style racist.” But implicit bias isn’t anywhere near that, you know, explicit. “Implicit bias is something that comes out of ordinary mental functioning, out of how the mind normally works.” “We’ve all grown up in a culture with media images, news images, conversations we heard at home, our education — think of that as a fog we’ve been breathing our whole life. We’d never even realized it, what we were taking in.” And that fog causes associations that lead to biases. “I somehow know that if you say ‘peanut butter,’ I’m gonna say ‘jelly.’ That’s an association that’s been ingrained in me because throughout my life peanut butter and jelly are together.” “And in many forms of media there’s an over-representation of Black men and violent crime being paired together.” “And because of that, I actually deep down inside have been taught that Black men are violent and aggressive, and not to be trusted. That they’re criminals, that they’re thugs.” “With all those associations, I’m not trying to let us off the hook, but in some ways none of us stood a chance.” Starting today we’ll post a video a day dealing with one challenge of understanding implicit bias and its relationship to race, and exploring ways we might combat the problem. “One more thing: If you’re seeing this and thinking that it doesn’t apply to you, well you might be falling prey to the ‘blind spot bias.’ That’s the scientific name for a mental bias that allows you to see biases in others, but not in yourself. We’re biased.”

Awareness

One way to think about this is like we have two sets of thoughts or ways of thinking. First, we have our fast brain, which reacts in the moment, automatically, and with little effort (Quick, as fast as you can, when I say peanut butter what do you think!) and our slow brain, which requires effort and therefore goes more slowly (What is the best use of peanut butter?). Our fast and slow brains have both been deeply important to evolution and human survival, but they can also be at cross purposes. When our fast brain is being used to make a decision better served by our slow brain, it can impact our awareness. That is particularly powerful when we consider the messages we’ve been socialized into regarding ourselves and other social identity groups. To see this in action, try out the awareness test below.

Awareness Test

This is an awareness test. How many passes does the team in white make? The answer is 13. But, did you see the moonwalking bear? It’s easy to miss something you’re not looking for.


3.2 Why and When

Our implicit biases are the result of our unconscious mental processes. Our conscious mental processes are those we’re aware of. If we think of our thoughts as being similar to an iceberg, our conscious mental processes are the parts above the surface while our unconscious mental processes are those below the surface.

Another way to think of this is that right now, your conscious mental processes are, I hope, occupied by processing this paragraph. Your brain in building connections between the information you’re reading here and the information you’ve experienced throughout your life. Perhaps, it’s connecting back to something that a friend has said, something that you read in a book, or heard somewhere. Perhaps, you’re not convinced yet, and your conscious mind is evaluating the validity of these words.

An iceberg floating in the ocean. Only a small percentage of the iceberg is visible above the water; most is below the surface.

Regardless, your conscious mental processes are engaged with this text, and you’re aware of thinking about. There is a wealth of other information your body might be processing right now too without your awareness. Factors like temperature, light, humidity, smell, sound, or the physical feeling of something we’re familiar with are less likely to register to us. We will often notice these things only if they are new, unusual, or uncomfortable to us.

Within the depths of our unconscious processing, our brain performs some pretty important tasks that result in implicit bias. In order to create a more effective environment for information recall, our brain likes to pair or group concepts. Patterns make it easier to store information as well as integrate new pieces of information into our pre-existing patterns of thought. Our unconscious processes also help us to very quickly assess a threat in order to react to it appropriately. In fact, some of the strongest associations we have are those that are fear based.

There are also known risk factors or times when our biases are the most likely to impact us such as when we have:

  • Incomplete or ambiguous information
    • Our brain likes a complete picture. When we don’t have a complete picture, we are likely to fill in the gaps with what we think of as the common, normal, or most likely experience, regardless of whether or not we mean to do so.
  • A compromised cognitive load
    • When we’re tired, hungry, angry, distracted, or otherwise uncomfortable or unable to focus, it is more likely that we’ll need to rely on our fast brain and thus our implicit biases.
  • Time constraints
    • When we’re rushing or short on time, it is also easier to fall into relying on our implicit biases to make decisions and guide actions.
  • Overconfidence in our objectivity
    • When we are overconfident in our own objectivity, we tend to stop interrogating our actions and behaviors for biases. It may be that we are able to identify bias in others but lose the ability to locate it in our own actions. When this happens, we’re likely to not realize we’re leaning on our biases.

If you’re interested in learning more about what implicit biases you may have, consider taking the Harvard Implicit Associations test. Remember that our implicit biases may not align with our articulated values.


3.3 Combating Bias

Learning to spot your own biases is a good place to start, however, learning of the existence of implicit bias is not enough to combat them. While it would be very satisfying to provide a list of 10 simple steps to eliminate bias, that, unfortunately, is not very realistic. There are, however, some good places to start:

  • Intentionally cultivate your self-awareness
    • What identities do you hold?
    • What messages were you socialized into about your own identities and others?
    • What comprises “normal” for you?
  • Identify risk factors
    • How aware are you when you have ambiguous or incomplete information?
    • Are you able to notice the emotional states that could guide you toward your implicit biases as they’re occurring?
    • Are you open to receiving feedback if others provide it to you on your biases?
  • Interrogate your biases
    • How did you come to learn different beliefs and values you have?
    • Ask yourself often, “what makes me say or think that?”

Reflective Question:

To align with the iterative nature of learning on this topic, below is a reflective question.

  • What was a time when you feel you relied on your implicit biases to guide your action?
  • What was the risk factor at play?