Here is implicit bias by the numbers: 11,000,000, 40 and 150.
According to University of Virginia psychology professor Timothy Wilson, 11,000,000 is how many pieces of information we are confronted with at any given moment. Forty is how many pieces of information he says our brains can actually process at one time.
You see the problem: It’s obviously impossible to absorb all that information in a moment. And, if we try to process it all equally, well, the tiger will eat us long before our brains absorb that there’s a threat. To compensate for this discrepancy, our brains compress the process. Rather than solely rely on the data in front of us, our brains depend on our experiences, history and perceptions to make decisions. In other words, our brains rely on similar data, assuming that it’s as valid as the actual data.
Only, of course, it isn’t.
We make snap decisions based on imperfect information and, the result, over time, is implicit bias, or the tendency to unknowingly rely on information that reinforces stereotypes. Here’s where the 150 comes in: that’s how many forms of implicit bias experts have identified. These different forms of bias range from perception bias (stereotyping people based on a group they belong to) to bandwagon bias (believing something because others believe it). Such unconscious bias is a hard-wired, necessary survival trait. But it is also hard-wired into our interactions with other people. It is especially important, then, when working in a multicultural group or environment, to attempt to unlearn our inherent unconscious biases by rationally assessing the decisions our brains make in everyday situations.
It’s worth noting that bias is a word that often carries a negative connotation but, in fact, it’s really neutral. It simply means that our brains are functioning as they should, noticing patterns and making generalizations. If we rely on our bias to choose produce at the supermarket, for example, there’s nothing negative about it.
Bias only becomes negative if it leads to discrimination, lack of diversity and single-minded thinking – as it often does. Sometimes that single-mindedness is relatively benign: Google engineers developed an app that resulted in upside-down videos for many users because the developers didn’t allow for left-handedness; phones are usually rotated 180-degrees when held in someone’s left hand, hence the upside-down images. In other cases, the bias leads to discrimination: Numerous studies have shown that CEOs in the U.S. are much taller than the average person. In some extreme cases, it’s lethal: Black Americans are much more likely than their white peers to be shot by a police officer. (FBI data shows that blacks accounted for 31% of police-shooting victims in 2012, even though blacks only made up 13% of the population.)
The truth is, we all have some implicit bias. (If you doubt it, do a Google search for “implicit bias test” and then take some. My experience doing so was uncomfortable and eye-opening.) Clearly, we would all be better off if we eliminated such unconscious bias – but it’s not easy. We often aren’t even aware of our own biases, which is why we refer to it as implicit bias or unconscious bias.
But difficult is not impossible, and there are steps you can take to unlearn implicit biases. But be patient because, as with most behavioral change, it’s going to take time. (You didn’t create the implicit bias overnight, so there’s no reason to think you can unlearn it that quickly.) And it isn’t a matter of simply stopping something; for change to be effective, you must replace one action with a different one. Here’s what you can do:
Increase contact with people who are different from you. Although incidents of racial bias grab headlines, we can also form unconscious biases based on gender, gender identity, age, sexual orientation, marital status, education, and many other characteristics. We also tend to socialize most with people like us. Break that pattern by interacting with people outside your in-group. That interaction will have
Notice positive examples. Research shows that implicit bias responds to current input. In other words, new experiences can replace older data. One way to take advantage of this is to focus your attention on
Be specific in your intent. It’s one thing to say, “I will lose weight.” It’s another to say, “I will cut dessert out of my diet until I’ve lost 10 pounds.” The latter statement is more likely to help you succeed. Regardless of whether you are aware of holding specific stereotypes yourself, you can defeat negative bias by countering it intentionally. For example, there is a pervasive (and inaccurate) stereotype that African Americans are more likely to commit crimes than people of other races. Regardless of whether we accept the stereotype, we are aware of it. A University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill study found that people who intentionally said the word “safe” to themselves each time they encountered an African American effectively undid implicit bias by creating a new and more positive stereotype.
Change the way you do things. Often, we’re stuck in negative patterns without realizing it. In hiring, for example, we often perpetuate single-minded thinking by hiring people much like ourselves. A contributing factor can be implicit bias in the way we read resumes, making assumptions based on people’s names, age or education. So, ditch the resumes! Some companies have already done so, and are, instead, asking candidates to submit work samples or presentations. This way people are hired based on the quality of their work, not on who or what they are. (The Clayman Institute of Gender Studies at Stanford found that the number of women musicians in orchestras rose from 5% to 25% after auditioning players performed behind a screen so that their gender was unknown; the playing spoke for itself.)
Heighten your awareness. Once you become aware of something, you can’t be unaware ever again. Make an effort to notice all the ways in which your perceptions are subliminally shaped. For example, you may consciously believe that women are equally as capable as men of being effective leaders. But every time you uncritically read or hear phrases like “glass ceiling” or “gender pay gap” they undermine your belief.
Take care of yourself. Implicit bias is more likely to surface when we are mentally or physically exhausted or highly stressed. That’s because when we’re tired or stressed, we’re less effective at processing new information and rely more on unconscious patterns.
None of these approaches, alone, will help us overcome our implicit bias. And even collectively they will only work if we accept that we have implicit biases and commit to diligent self-awareness. We must see ourselves clearly before we can begin to see others clearly.