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Understanding implicit bias and how to counteract it

Last updated

16 November 2023


Dovetail Editorial Team

Reviewed by

Shawnna Johnson

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Biases toward different groups of people can be harmful and destructive in a business setting and in all aspects of life. Biases have no place in the workplace or the criminal justice, healthcare, or education systems. Even so, it continues to be a problem in certain circumstances.

Most people assume that when you form biases about people, you do so with intent and outward discriminatory views. However, some biases can be implicit. Implicit bias is subliminal and harder to control.

Learn what implicit bias is, how to recognize it, and how to remove it from your actions and choices.

What is implicit bias?

You probably have an idea of what bias means. It refers to attitudes, behaviors, and actions that favor one person or a group of people over another. But what is implicit bias? Implicit bias is an unconscious, unintentional bias that affects the judgments, decisions, and behaviors you exhibit toward others based on race, ethnicity, age, gender, religion, and other characteristics.

The actions you might take because of this type of bias are not deliberate. However, unconscious bias may affect hiring decisions, work promotions, and even access to medical treatments, so you need to be aware of implicit bias and have the tools to change it.

What is the most common type of implicit bias?

It’s possible to have implicit biases about different groups in society. Here are some common types of implicit bias:

  • Racial bias—discriminating against someone or making assumptions about them due to their race or cultural background.

  • Name bias—valuing certain names over others. For instance, Anglo-sounding names are often favored over those from other cultures.

  • Age bias—this is when you make assumptions about someone’s character or abilities based on their age. This can be a major problem in the workplace when younger candidates are favored over older candidates, even if they have more experience.

  • Gender bias—prejudice or discrimination based on someone’s gender. The assumption that men make better business leaders is an example.

  • Confirmation bias—this type of bias involves choosing to consume and believe specific information that conforms with your personal beliefs.

  • Conformity bias—this occurs when you choose to go along with things, even if you don’t agree. It’s also known as “group think.”

Is implicit bias everywhere?

Implicit bias is everywhere and can affect people significantly in settings that could put them at a disadvantage or adversely impact their lives.

Implicit vs. explicit bias

While implicit bias affects intentions caused by unconscious thoughts or actions, actions stemming from explicit biases are intentional. When you exhibit explicit biases, you are fully aware of your thought process. The resulting consequences are intentional.

You might assume that implicit biases are more challenging to change than explicit biases because implicit attitudes are less controllable. However, studies have shown that people can successfully change implicit attitudes over time.

What causes implicit bias?

As you navigate life from childhood to the age you are now, you’ve had considerable life influences and experiences. You have learned attitudes from family, friends, schoolmates, and neighbors, and your experiences have made you the person you are now. Unfortunately, implicit bias can result from being regularly exposed to negative ideas about a particular group of people.

Even if you consciously disagree with these negative ideas and maintain a positive explicit attitude toward that group of people, you store the negative information unconsciously as patterns and associations. Unfortunately, these unconscious associations can sometimes influence thoughts, judgments, or actions without you realizing it.

What are the effects of implicit bias?

The effects of implicit bias, although unintentional, can change the course of someone’s life. Education institutions, workplaces, healthcare facilities, and the criminal justice system can all adversely affect the people they are meant to serve because of decisions influenced by implicit bias.

Implicit bias in school

A teacher’s expectations and perceptions of students can lead to different treatment and lower academic outcomes for specific groups. If a teacher perceives a student to have less of an academic future than others because of implicit stereotypes, they may unconsciously disadvantage that student by devoting more time and resources to others.

For example, a study by the Harvard Graduate School of Education found that in schools with a more substantial pro-White/anti-Black bias among teachers, there are more significant gaps in test scores between Black and White students and higher suspension rates for Black students.

The study also indicated that teachers of color have less pro-White/anti-Black bias, with Black teachers exhibiting the lowest levels.

Researchers concluded that having diversity in teaching staff and leaders while supporting White teachers to recognize and monitor their implicit biases may be the key to reducing academic inequality.

Implicit bias in the workplace

Hiring decisions, promotion opportunities, and the overall workplace culture can be influenced by implicit bias, affecting employee retention, engagement, and productivity. Managers may subconsciously manipulate hiring decisions and performance ratings based on implicit bias, affecting job and promotion opportunities for some.

Implicit bias can also hinder workplace diversity and inclusion efforts. The purpose of such efforts is to ensure that people from all groups feel comfortable contributing to business operations with ideas or productivity.

Managers can avoid implicit bias when considering performance proficiency by focusing solely on the value of the individual’s contribution or skill set. Meanwhile, hiring managers should determine what skills and specific experiences are missing from the team and select the person who best fits those criteria.

Implicit bias in healthcare settings

Unfortunately, some groups are impacted by implicit bias in healthcare settings. This can result in less access to healthcare, including screening for diseases and treatments.

While healthcare professionals may not be explicitly biased or intend to make discriminatory decisions, it can still affect people from certain groups with serious consequences.

Here are some examples of how implicit bias can impact people in healthcare:

  • Emergency intervention efforts are applied more often to one group over another.

  • Pain medication is recommended to certain groups less often.

  • Organ transplant decisions are affected.

  • Conditions can be misdiagnosed, and doctors may diagnose some conditions based on the individual presenting the symptoms instead of the symptoms themselves.

These examples can cause serious health outcomes, including death. Implicit bias in healthcare can also impact patient behavior. For example, patients from minority ethnic backgrounds who are affected by bias in the healthcare system may decide not to participate in screening programs, quit treatment programs, or avoid seeking medical advice altogether.

Establishing monitoring systems that evaluate healthcare processes and outcomes by race and other characteristics (such as gender or age) can help reveal disparities and cases of implicit bias. If these monitoring efforts find systemic inequality, feedback should be provided to the care unit or provider so they can develop remediation and accountability programs.

The criminal justice system is not immune to implicit bias. For example, some participants in the system may strongly associate criminality and violence with specific groups of people.

The American Bar Association (ABA) held a webinar event called Equal Justice: Confronting Bias With the Criminal Justice System to examine these issues.

Sarah Redfield, a law professor, implicit bias expert, diversity and inclusion trainer, and webinar panelist, acknowledges that biases still exist in the criminal justice system. All the panelists agree that lawmakers, attorneys, prosecutors, public defenders, judges, and jurors exhibit implicit bias.

Redfield hopes these biases can be overcome. She suggests some strategies for interrupting biases, such as being aware, staying accountable, and diversifying contact networks.

Measuring implicit bias

Several online tests have been developed to measure implicit bias. One of the best-known is the Implicit Association Test (IAT). The IAT has been available since 1998. It can help people discover their potential biases that even they may not be aware of.

Taking this test reveals automatic and unconscious thought patterns and measures the strength of associations. Participants categorize words or images on the screen by pressing specific keys on the keyboard.

Taking the Implicit Association Test

Anyone can take the IAT test. Once you click on the link, you’ll find preliminary information and disclaimers. Scroll to the bottom of the screen to proceed with the test. You’ll find a list of IAT tests on the next page:

  • Race

  • Sexuality

  • Gender

  • Religion

  • Disability

  • Weight

  • Arab-Muslim, Asian, Native American, and Hispanic

  • Transgender

  • Age

The tests take about 10 minutes. At the end, you’ll receive your results and information to help you understand them.

Be curious about your results

The test results don’t indicate that you are prejudiced or have negative attitudes toward specific people. It simply provides a way to discover if you hold unconscious stereotypes or implicit preferences for one group over another. The results can be eye-opening. You can reflect on them and direct your attention to creating new associations or challenging your associations when interacting with specific groups.

You may have to be selective about exposing yourself to information during your daily life. Watching television shows or movies about people in less familiar or minority groups may help you combat negative associations. After some time has passed, retake the test to see if there has been any improvement.

Remember, it’s not about you

The point of taking the test isn’t to make you feel bad but to make you aware. The test doesn’t reflect how one individual will behave.

If you score a “strong” implicit bias score toward members of a specific group, this doesn’t indicate that you are a habitual discriminator. Instead, the test helps predict how people are likely to respond to hiring and promotion, medical treatment, and law enforcement decisions involving certain groups.

Can you eliminate implicit bias?

Devoting time and constant attention to implicit bias can eventually redirect your attitudes to produce more equitable and positive actions, behaviors, judgments, and decisions. However, you have to be honest and accountable.

You can change these patterns by taking steps to recognize and understand your implicit biases and commit time and effort to addressing them.

Ongoing awareness and action is necessary to combat implicit bias

You can’t address implicit bias once and expect it to disappear. Eliminating implicit bias is an ongoing process that requires constant awareness and effort.

Educating yourself on your unconscious preferences and how they can affect members of specific groups is one step toward eliminating implicit bias. This will enable you to recognize implicit biases when confronted with them and develop solutions to ensure they are not part of your decision-making process.

Beware of the training backlash

Many experts agree that most existing diversity training programs and policies have little effect on implicit bias. Here are some of the programs and policies that may have little or worsening effects:

  • Threatening lawsuits

  • Negative incentives like disciplinary actions

  • Mandatory training

  • Hiring tests and performance ratings

  • Grievance procedures

Control tactics like making diversity training mandatory or requiring managers to give hiring tests or maintain performance ratings are less effective in changing implicit bias. This is because they can breed animosity, anger, and resistance instead of encouraging the intended changes. For example, grievance procedures may negatively impact the people who complain they are being affected by implicit bias.

Voluntary training, program participation, and taking steps to increase contact with specific groups are tactics that get the best results. The idea is that educating yourself voluntarily means you’re willing to make positive changes within yourself.

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