Everyone Has Unconscious Bias

Elle Beau ❇︎
Dec 23, 2020 · 9 min read

What happened when I took an Implicit Associations Test

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Photo by jurien huggins on Unsplash

When I took the Implicit Associations Test (IAT) designed by researchers at Harvard University today, I wasn’t particularly surprised by the results, although they did not come out how I would prefer to think of myself. I only took two tests, one for racial preference and one for associations by gender. They also offer tests that reflect implicit associations related to age, weight, disability, sexuality, and other topics. I may go back to the website at some point and take those as well.

My results for the gender associations test showed a strong automatic association of males with career and with females for family, despite the fact that I am a staunch supporter of female empowerment and opportunity. This didn’t particularly surprise me, however, because I’m 56 years old and grew up in a very traditional family where even though my mother worked part time some of my childhood, my dad was clearly the breadwinner and she was clearly the primary manager of the childrearing and homemaking aspects. My conscious beliefs that I speak and write about now are only a part of the picture. What’s deep in my less conscious places reflect my upbringing and the strong gender binaries of the society that I was raised in.

When I took the racial preference test, I showed a strong automatic preference for European Americans over African Americans. This too didn’t surprise me, although I was less sanguine about the results than that of the gender associations test. I care deeply about equality and racism, and I would much prefer to think of myself as progressive and egalitarian. And I am in my conscious thinking. But that’s not the whole story, which is the point of the tests.

Even though I spent my elementary school years in Hawaii, a place where whites are the minority, and I do have some non-white friends (although not many), I’m well aware that we live in a deeply racist society. It seems unlikely that as much as I want to transcend that and not be a part of contributing to that dynamic, because it’s the ocean I’ve been swimming in my whole life, I am steeped in the implicit biases learned from my culture. I can accept that, even if I wish it weren’t so.

According to the researchers who run the IAT project the reason that we should seek to understand unconscious bias is that “Implicit preferences can predict behavior. Implicit preferences are related to discrimination in hiring and promotion, medical treatment, and decisions related to criminal justice.” They go on to say that such biases are very difficult to change, in part because we are largely unaware of them, but even things like implicit bias training do not necessarily make a substantive impact.

Unconscious bias, otherwise known as implicit bias, is something that we all have — everyone, regardless of race or gender. It does not only have to do with race or ethnicity, but are simply stereotypes that we hold largely without even realizing them about any social group. Other places of potential unconscious bias may be around age, gender, gender identity, physical abilities, religion, sexual orientation, weight, etc. This desire to lump people together in a defineable block comes not necessarily from malice, but from a human desire to organize social worlds by category. None-the-less, because most forms of discrimination are implicit and not overt, this type of unconscious bias has a very detrimental effect on our society.

Countless studies have confirmed the power of racial biases to shape everyday decisions in almost every aspect of life. White job applicants were found to be 74% more likely to have success than applicants from ethnic minorities with identical CVs. University professors were found to be far more likely to respond to emails from students with white-sounding names. US doctors have been found to recommend less pain medication for black or Latino patients than white patients with the same injury. White participants in a study were found to perceive black faces as more threatening than white faces with the same expression.

I wrote a story recently exploring the assertion that “all white people are racist.” I looked at it from beyond the inflammatory nature of a phrase like that to see if there was any substance. What I concluded was this:

  • Most racism (or other discrimination) is not overt. It comes via unconscious bias.
  • Everyone has unconscious bias. In fact, cognitive science, which studies this, says that only about 2% of thought is conscious.
  • If everyone has unconscious biases, then all whites have them.
  • We have an undeniably racist society, so it is nearly impossible to escape absorbing some of those biases contributing to racist outcomes or experiences for others.
  • Ergo, all white people are racist in the sense that all white people have things in their subconscious, which they may not even be aware of, and which may be in direct contravention to conscious beliefs, that contribute to racism.
  • And since whites have by far the most societal power, their unconscious bias has the potential to inflict the most harm on others.

Some people took this in stride, some pushed back a little bit and a few went ballistic, in large part challenging the notion of unconscious bias. My purpose with this story is not to denigrate anyone. It is to point out that we cannot truly impact racism (in the US, in particular) if we are only dealing with the tip of the iceberg, which is what is taking place overtly.

No one likes the thought of being called a racist or accused of perpetrating discrimination. As someone who cares a lot about equality, it’s not something I’d be happy about, but I also think that this issue isn’t about me and what makes me feel good about myself. It’s about what happens to those who are harmed by this dynamic if I refuse to acknowledge that despite my best intentions and conscious efforts, I have unconscious places where I’m evaluating other people based on harmful stereotypes. And based on the IAT, that’s actually taking place for me a lot more than I would like it to be.

Although implicit bias training hasn’t been shown to be particularly effective, there are still things that we can do to try to counteract it taking place, particularly in the workplace. These ideas come from Catalyst and they note that building your awareness of unconscious bias is an imporant way to counteract it, something that could apply to any aspect of life.

1. Affinity Bias

Also called like-likes-like, this bias refers to our tendency to gravitate toward people similar to ourselves. That might mean hiring or promoting someone who shares the same race, gender, age, or educational background.

Opportunity: Ensure that candidate slates for all open positions include two or more qualified women as well as two people from other underrepresented racial/ethnic groups.

2. Ageism

Discriminating against someone on the basis of their age. Ageism tends to affect women more than men, and starts at younger ages.

Opportunity: Remove graduation and work experience dates from resumes. Realize that older workers may bring skills and experiences to the table that younger workers can’t.

3. Attribution Bias

Because some people see women as less competent than men, they may undervalue their accomplishments and overvalue their mistakes.

Opportunity: Give honest, detailed feedback to all of your direct reports, and tie it to concrete business goals and outcomes. Research shows that feedback given to women tends to be vague and focused on communication style, while men are given specific feedback that tends to be tied to business goals and technical skills that accelerate advancement.

4. Beauty Bias

Judging people, especially women, based on how attractive you think they are is called beauty bias. People perceived as attractive can be viewed more positively and treated more favorably.

Opportunity: Try to be aware of those judging thoughts in your head during the hiring process and promotion opportunities. Focus on their work, not their look.

5. Confirmation Bias

Confirmation bias refers to the tendency to look for or favor information that confirms beliefs we already hold.

Opportunity: Identify your blind spots. Build your own awareness about unconscious bias.

6. Conformity Bias

Very common in group settings, this type of bias occurs when your views are swayed or influenced by the views of others. This is similar to groupthink.

Opportunity: Consider using structured interviews and wait to share your thoughts with coworkers until the process is over.

7. The Contrast Effect

This bias refers to evaluating the performance of one person in contrast to another because you experienced the individuals either simultaneously or in close succession.

Opportunity: If you find yourself comparing two people, especially in the hiring process, write down why you are leaning toward one over the other. Be sure your assessment is of each of them individually, not in comparison to one another.

8. Gender Bias

Preferring one gender over another or assuming that one gender is better for the job.

Opportunity: Try to use neutral language in job descriptions that don’t resonate more with one gender over another. When thinking about development opportunities or promotions, try to switch the gender of the person you’re thinking about and see if it changes your perception of their readiness.

9. The Halo/Horns Effect

The tendency to put someone on a pedestal or think more highly of them after learning something impressive about them, or conversely, perceiving someone negatively after learning something unfavorable about them.

Opportunity: Consider why you have a negative (or positive) perception. Ask yourself if your perception stems from unconscious stereotyping based on race, gender, or ethnicity, for instance.

10. Name Bias

When you judge a person based on their name and perceived background. This is especially important when reviewing resumes.

Opportunity: Remove candidates’ names from resumes to ensure you choose people based on their skills and experience, not their perceived background.

11. Weight Bias

Judging a person negatively because they are larger or heavier than average.

Opportunity: When making judgments about a person, consider how you would feel if the person was thinner.

We all have implicit associations deep within our subconscious minds and as much as we would like to think of ourselves as rational, ruled by logic, and in control of ourselves, that is a centuries old theory of rationality. Modern cognitive science and things like the Implicit Awareness Test demonstrate that this is really not the case. George Lakoff, a cognitive scientist says,

All thought is physical, carried out by neural circuitry. No thought just floats in midair. Research over the past four decades has provided insight into how neural circuitry carries out thought that is below the level of consciousness.

Only a tiny amount of our thought is conscious. A typical estimate is about 2 percent, with about 98 percent of thought unconscious.”

The unconscious places are influenced not by logic but by embodied primitives, frames, conceptual metaphor, and conceptual integration. All of our deepest ways of making sense of the world are unconscious and they are heavily influenced by what they have been exposed to, particularly in childhood, although current influences also come from things like the media and who we spend time with. People who talk about their parents being “brainwashed” by Fox News are describing this phenomenon.

What I learned today taking the IAT and doing further research is that although different people may have different levels of implicit bias around discrete subject areas, we all have some unconscious biases. This doesn’t make us reprehensible, it makes us human, although I believe we do have the responsibility to try to better understand and work with our biases, because they can cause other people a lot of harm.

If you would like to take an Implicit Association Test for yourself, you can go to this website. I have no affiliation to with Harvard, the researchers, or the IAT.

© Copyright Elle Beau 2020
Elle Beau writes on Medium about sex, life, relationships, society, anthropology, spirituality, and love. If this story is appearing anywhere other than Medium.com, it appears without my consent and has been stolen.

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Elle Beau ❇︎

Written by

Dispelling cultural myths with research-driven stories. My favorite word is “specious.” Not fragile like a flower; fragile like a bomb! Twitter @ElleBeau

Inside of Elle Beau

The collected works

Elle Beau ❇︎

Written by

Dispelling cultural myths with research-driven stories. My favorite word is “specious.” Not fragile like a flower; fragile like a bomb! Twitter @ElleBeau

Inside of Elle Beau

The collected works

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