A More Equitable Society Requires We Address Our Own Implicit Bias
By LeRoy Thompson
OD Consultant and Coach

posted in: Blog, Leadership, Neuroscience, Staff


Understandably, organizations today have an increased sense of urgency about improving their diversity training. But many don’t understand that the real challenge with the ethnicity and gender issues may well be our neurobiological response rather than our conscious reactions. This poses both an opportunity and a deep-seated threat to making real progress in social equity. The opportunity is our collective willingness to explore our implicit bias.

Implicit bias consists of “the attitudes or stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions, and decisions in an unconscious manner,” according to The Ohio State University Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity.

Suppose you are sailing across the ocean and see the tip of an iceberg above the waves. Now think of this tip of the iceberg as symbolizing your conscious awareness. And imagine that the larger portion of this iceberg, below the waves, symbolizes your subconscious awareness.

Actions heavily influenced by implicit bias may lack conscious intention. And an individual may not realize the entirety of the motivations behind their actions because they lie beneath the surface.  

Everyone is subject to their own implicit bias, which can take many forms. One could have an implicit bias against homosexuals, members of the opposite sex, or those of another race or religion.

Avoiding implicit bias starts with a conscious knowledge it exists within you

Implicit bias poses an ethical dilemma when decisions are left to one’s own discretion – even in instances where people strive to be objective – like the judge deciding on sentencing someone that broke a law, the teacher deciding on disciplinary action for a student, and the police officer deciding on whether or not to charge someone with a crime.

Because implicit bias acts on a subconscious level, it is difficult to guard against it without conscious knowledge that it is there within you in the first place. It’s a lot like how an incompetent person isn’t always aware of their own incompetence.

The degree of implicit bias varies on the individual level. And it exists within a measurable spectrum of intensity. Some individuals may carry more implicit bias towards a group than others.

Despite some strident voices, implicit bias is not a groundless academic abstraction. Nor is it an entirely revolutionary psychological concept. Psychologists Mahzarin Banaji and Anthony Greenwald first discussed the concept of implicit bias in 1995. But, the idea that factors in our environment may in some part motivate our actions, outside of our awareness, has been around for a very long time.

Tests prove implicit bias has a neural basis

Recent experiments have proven implicit bias’s physical manifestation within the brain, and a body of knowledge has sprung up around the subject.

Experiments involving functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) attest to the neural basis for implicit bias. This neural activity also corresponds with the findings of particular tests used to measure the degree of an individual’s implicit bias. This suggests that certain tests designed to measure implicit bias, like the free Implicit Association Test, provide an accurate measure of the degree of someone’s implicit bias[CM1].

In an example that highlights the role that implicit bias can play in our daily interactions involving race, fMRI imaging revealed that more blood flows to the brain’s amygdala – also known as the fear center of the brain – when white people are shown images of unfamiliar African American faces.

This is not the case when white people see images of familiar African American faces or other white people for that matter. And African American people themselves have increased blood flow to the amygdala when shown images of unfamiliar African American faces.

Many researchers believe that this particular experiment strengthens the case for implicit bias being culturally learned. Specifically, these researchers believe that this experiment’s results derive from “culturally learned negative associations regarding African American individuals.”

Recently, The Economist reported that a new artificial intelligence language model called GPT-3 learned to generate racist material when prompted with the word “black”. The developer believes that happened because of the preponderance of bigoted material GPT-3consumed while crawling the internet.

Also, consider the case of the young child that watches cartoons created in the 1950s or the full-grown adult who watched those same cartoons in the past. The amount of negative media associations border on the boundless. Still, some researchers believe that a genetic component plays a role in implicit biases’ formation.

Beyond cultural influences, bias is passed down by well-intentioned people who are trying to protect themselves and their children from that which they are comparatively unfamiliar with as well as that which they have learned to fear. That’s a serious double-whammy on the amygdala that makes eliminating biases a tough challenge. But, overcoming implicit bias can be done. 

“Debiasing” is possible with the right methods

Despite its pervasive nature, implicit bias is malleable. Constructing new mental associations causes individuals to overcome the hold implicit bias has on their minds. Called debiasing” by scholars, it’s like the breaking of a bad habit.

There are many different methods for debiasing. They include: meaningful interaction with members of groups that are different from one’ own group, training people to negate stereotypic associations, exposure to positive examples of individuals from groups other than one’s own group, and exposure to images of people that counter stereotypes of the groups to which they belong. 

Addressing our own implicit bias with these debiasing methods will allow us to build a more equitable society.