Welcome to the
Learning Center.

Welcome to the Mentor and Mentee Learning Center

2. What is Implicit Bias?

By: Rachel Godsil and Aya Taveras

Expected Time to Complete: 25 Minutes

Whenever we talk about implicit bias, we know that we will meet with skepticism. The question may be why we are focusing on implicit bias when explicit bias -- racism, misogyny, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, violence towards those who are transgender or gender non-conforming -- appears to to be increasing. Data shows that hate crimes are on the rise in the last two years, but it is still the case that the majority of people think that racial and ethnic diversity is very good for the country. Does the fact that those of us who reject explicit bias mean that we can be confident that race, ethnicity, class, gender, and other social identities have no effect on how we treat people? 

The clear answer is no -- the research is overwhelming that people’s social identities do matter and that we are most at risk of treating people unfairly if we ignore this fact. This video will explain how our unconscious brains operate and why we need to understand our implicit biases to reduce or override their effect:

The idea that our unconscious brains control our actions more than our conscious decisions may seem surprising — so we invite you to engage in the following activity .Simply state the color of the text that you see appear on your screen.

If you are like most people the task seemed ridiculously easy — until it wasn’t. Think about what made stating the colors suddenly confusing. What did you initially do when the color of the text differed from the actual word? You probably read the word. Why? Because since you learned to read, when you see letters that make words, you read them to find meaning. You have what scientists call a strong schema for reading words when you see them.

So now you know the trick: to do the task perfectly, ignore the words and just focus on the color.

That was likely still challenging, but not impossible. Our unconscious brains are powerful, but not impossible to override. In the second round, hopefully you were able to override your brain’s automatic response by focusing — and if you’d been able to slow the task down, you would have done even better.   Implicit bias is our brains wanting to read, and overriding is self-correcting to align our behavior with our desired outcomes.

As Dushaw Hockett says in his talk, a bias can be a preference for or an aversion or prejudice about a particular group.  It turns out in-group preference can cause harm — and is far more common that blatant hostility toward the "out-group."  One group getting preferences over and over again leads to accumulated advantage.  One way in-group preference shows up is by affecting whether mistakes are seen as a product of external factors or personal flaws:  if a person is late, is their lateness attributed to traffic delays or time-management issues.  This is called "attribution error" and as we’ll explore in later MLMs, it can have major effects on how teachers treat students or how employers see employees.

As we close this MLM, we invite you to take a few moments to reflect on the following from your own personal experiences:
  1. Think about a time when you experienced an in-group/out-group dynamic. Which group were you part of? What was the setting? If you were in the in-group, how did you treat people in the out-group? If you were in the out-group, how did that feel? How were you impacted? If you were in the in-group, reflect on how it feels to recognize that retrospectively.
  2. Name a time when a bias has shown up in your life--were you on the receiving end of a bias or were you made aware that you held a bias against someone else? How has that moment impacted you?
It may feel uncomfortable to accept it, but every person has implicit biases --preferences for some groups, aversions to others, associations linked to identities. We are even vulnerable to having implicit biases about groups we are part of — the unconscious is social not personal and we all live in a culture that creates stereotypes about groups.

The work we have to do is figure out how our implicit biases may show up and whether they may cause harm or give advantages to some that we deny to others.
  1. Think about your interactions and the decisions you make -- who do they most effect? Then take the Implicit Associations Tests linked to the groups you may effect. The IAT is not a DNA test -- but it can be a good tool to figure out what your brain’s vulnerabilities are and can support you in becoming more aware of any associations you may not consciously be aware that you hold. While it will be impossible to get rid of all of our biases, when you identify an implicit bias you hold, you can engage in the following practices to address your bias.  If practiced habitually over time, these have been shown to reduce biases, increase our concern about discrimination and our desire for contact across difference.  
  2. One of the important practices is “emphatic perspective taking” — think about how it would feel to be in someone else’s experience -- take on the first hand perspective – but make sure to learn about how their experience may differ from yours based upon their group identity.
  3. We invite you to watch this video to gain practice in empathetic perspective taking.

Almost done, click here to finish MLM #2!