We masterfully conserve our mental energy. Not from professionally designed organizational habits; but naturally. Our minds aren’t lazy; they’re efficient. We prefer to believe that we experience first, then think, and follow with a response. We crown ourselves kings and queens because our mastery of cognitive powers. Yet, our judgements are far from perfect. Insidious viruses invade, coloring thoughts, and biasing perceptions. We all harbor some harmful implicit biases.
Implicit bias speeds response and poisons reactions. We hate, fear and prefer people before we ever exchange a word. This is the work of implicit bias. When majorities share negative implicit biases against other groups, the targets suffer. We must intently work to root out these implicit biases and expose their deceptions, and heal the hurt.
How are Biases Formed?
We routinely bypass the thinking cortex. We waste less precious energy with habits. Conscious evaluations stall reactions, losing precious time on thought. Our brains store implicit memories from experience, projecting feeling affects on the present. We respond to the motivating feeling rather than skeptical examination. This usually serves us well.
Thomas Gilovich, a professor of Psychology at Cornell University, explains, “evolution has given us powerful intellectual tools for processing vast amounts of information with accuracy and dispatch, and our questionable beliefs derive primarily from the misapplication or overutilization of generally valid and effective strategies for knowing (1993).
Mahzarin R. Banaji and Anthony G. Greenwald expand on the motivational impact of feeling on action, “our automatic preferences serve as navigational devices.” They continue, explaining that our automatic preferences “work quietly and quickly, turning us away from dissonance generators… well before any feeling of mental discomfort penetrates our conscious awareness” (2016, p. 62).We record dangerous situations, painful encounters, damaging failures, and rejuvenating joys (the more significant the experience the more salient the memory). New encounters only make sense through comparison to the past. The memory amplifies or diminishes emotional reactions to something new.
We Must Watch for Faulty Bias
This automatic reactionary feature occasionally goes astray, leading to troublesome action. We must periodically scrutinize responses for appropriateness; the system is efficient but fallible. Emotional experience gathers input from a wide net, including many irrelevant facts—past associations and misleading data. Biases creep in and smoothly mislead interpretations.
We build biases into our thinking systems. Ignorance testifies of the shadowy operation of infiltrating biases. We don’t see them. Unseen biases destructively invade without correction. Our blindness to their presence narrows views and obstructs wisdom. We must constantly be on guard, periodically examining automatic conclusions. If we don’t intentionally seek to uncover biases, they will grossly misdirect responses. Gilovich calls these faulty beliefs not products of irrationality, “but of flawed rationality.”
We Justify Biases Instead of Correct
Our ego quietly creates justifications, supporting the biased based conclusions. This is a defense mechanism. We think our response is intelligent but often isn’t. Once we believe a phenomenon exists, since we are not bound by scientific laws of reason, we have no trouble explaining why it exists or what it means (Gilovich, 1993). We cling to biases, accept faulty evidence from unrepresentative samples, and ignore evidence hostile to our beliefs. We gladly enjoy an illusion of validity. Only when free of the delusion, can we recognize the foolishness of the belief.
See Foolish, Foolish Me for more on this topic.
Biases and Grouping
Grouping categories eases cognitive demand, we cast a wide net, avoiding the particulars. We don’t have the cognitive resources to evaluate every small chunk of information so we use grouping as a short-cut. However, when our short-cut uses race, gender, age, religious and political beliefs or even professions to project characteristics on the entire group our bias hurts innocent others.
Culture spreads faulty truths that we digest and accept as reality. Integrating cultural beliefs into our thinking and feeling. We ferociously protect that which isn’t true. Many of these biases have existed for so long and are held by so many that they have not only infiltrated our thoughts but also our institutions. Wide spread bias has a self-fulfilling element. Leonard Mlodinow, theoretical physicist and author, wrote, “we can’t avoid mentally absorbing the categories defined by the society in which we live” (2013, location 2707).
Unfortunately, studies have confirmed that “we use stereo typing of the group as a starting point for our perception of that person” (Banaji and Greenwald, 2016, p. 71). When our stereo type is “bad” (dangerous, lazy), then a person in that group must prove themselves to be “good” before we trust them. Conversely, if our stereo type is “good” (productive, nice, law-abiding), then a person must prove themselves to be “bad” before we treat them with suspicion.
This unsightly, unfair advantage exists and proliferates our society, impacting criminal justice, financial institutions, and schools.
How Do We Reduce Implicit Bias?
harmful Implicit biases are deeply interwoven into the mechanics of brain operation. We may never eradicate our propensity to inappropriately judge others using group stereotypes. Our conscious access to underpinnings of mind operations is quite low.
Employers, schools, and governments can implement programs that expose implicit bias, changing generally accepted norms that systemically operate with bias.
A comprehensive examination of changes on the institutional level is beyond the purpose of the article.
Acknowledge the Existence of Implicit Bias
We must accept the workings of our brain utilize implicit bias. Bias is woven into the biological network of communication, splitting people into groups of us and them. “Good” people prefer to see themselves as beyond bias. When a significant portion of biased people, miss the point, the implicit bias continues with force.
Many studies have found that harmful implicit biases are strongly associated with lack of personal awareness (Devine, 2012).
The stigmatizing of stereotypes has forced expressions under ground. Consequently, we don’t talk about it. We don’t address it. Unfortunately, well meaning laws and ethical codes punish people who acknowledge possession if a universal character trait. Perhaps, the lawmakers and policy writers ignore their own blindness.
Viewing From a Different Perspective
We must practice examining judgements from multiple perspectives. We attempt to view a situation from the category or the person being judged. Research supports this. Perspective taking can temporarily reduce implicit bias (Weyant, 2019).
See Theory of Mind for more on this topic
Empathy is the ability to understand and communicate the experience of others. Empathy is critically connected to acceptance of complexity. With empathy, we drop harsh judgements, acknowledging our limited views. Empathy improves with openness, exposure, and curiosity.
See The Gift of Empathy for more on this topic.
We need deeper connection to the entirety of our experience. Markedly, we must notice discomfort, judgements, thoughts, and stereotyping. Most of these critical elements go unnoticed in our rush to interpret life. Stop. Pause. Listen. Experience accompanying feelings, racing thoughts, and driving motivations. As we become more intimate with life, we notice more unconscious processes at work.
See Mindfulness for more on this topic.
We must combat implicit bias, discovering hurtful interpretations, and gathering more facts. Basically, we must check, recheck and then check again to combat nasty harmful implicit biased responses. Accordingly, when we slow down and skeptically reject shortcuts that devalue groups of people, expending energy to explore, we can then act with constructive intention instead of mindless bias.
Banaji, M. R., Greenwald, A. G. (2016). Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People. Bantam; Reprint edition.
Devine, P. G., Forscher, P.S., Austin, A. J. & Cox, W. T. (2012). Long-Term Reduction in Implicit Race Bias: A prejudice Habit-Breaking Intervention. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.
Gilovich, Thomas (1993) How We Know What Isn’t So: The Fallibility of Human Reason in Everyday Life. Free Press; Reprint edition.
Mlodinow, Leonard (2013). Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior. Vintage; Illustrated edition.
Weyant, J. (2019). Reducing Implicit Bias Toward Non-Native Speakers of English Via Perspective Taking. Hispanic Journal of Behavioral Sciences,41(4), 542-549.