The human brain uses pattern recognition as a way to learn and help you make decisions. Our brains constantly try to detect patterns in the environment. However, this process of pattern recognition can also lead to broad generalizations and stereotype-confirming thoughts that pass spontaneously through the mind. This process is called implicit bias.
Implicit bias, a term that often surfaces in discussions about social justice, discrimination, and equality, is a concept many of us encounter but may not fully comprehend.
What is Implicit Bias?
“We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.” - Anaïs Nin
The American Psychological Association defines implicit bias, also known as implicit prejudice or implicit attitude, as a negative attitude, of which one is not consciously aware, against a specific social group.
Implicit bias refers to thoughts, attitudes, or stereotypes shaped by experience and based on learned associations between particular qualities and social categories, including race, age, and/or gender. These implicit biases can then influence our perceptions and behaviors — even if we are unaware those biases exist.
What does implicit bias look like?
Imagine you are seeing a new doctor for the first time. When you show up for your initial appointment, you are surprised that the medical specialist is in their 30s; you had expected someone much older.
Your expectation and surprise result from an implicit bias associating age with expertise.
Where Does Implicit Bias Come From?
The roots of implicit bias lie in the human tendency to organize the world into categories. This cognitive shortcut is known as social categorization, the process by which we group individuals based on social information. The “big three” social categories are sex, race, and age; we also tend to group people through other factors, including social status, occupation, sexual orientation, religion, politics, and appearance.
Social categorization helps the human brain process information quickly, but this process of broad generalization can lead to stereotyping.
Your environment, upbringing, social media influences, and social circles can subtly and continuously shape these biases.
For example, you may unknowingly and subconsciously adopt certain viewpoints about a certain group if they are portrayed in the media and on social media in a negative light, even if that viewpoint contradicts your conscious beliefs about equality and fairness.
Which of the Following is an Example of Implicit Bias?
Implicit bias can manifest itself in many different ways. Let’s look at some examples of implicit bias and one example that is not.
Implicit Bias in Hiring
Biases are well-documented in hiring processes, where the implicit biases of a recruiter or hiring manager can affect candidate selection. A recruiter may display an affinity bias towards a candidate who went to the same college and automatically assign “competence” to that person based on their alma mater.
For example, in one study, researchers presented employers with identical resumes and found that job applicants perceived to be white were 30% more likely to be hired than those with Black-sounding names.
Implicit Bias in Mandated Reporting
Every state in the US has mandated reporting requirements, and most states identify mandated reporters by profession. Mandatory reporters, including teachers, healthcare providers, clergy, law enforcement, and others, are legally required to report suspected instances of abuse and neglect.
Implicit bias can often come into play in reporting scenarios.
One example of implicit bias in mandated reporting is mistakenly believing that poverty equals neglect. If a teacher sees a child come into the classroom demonstrating signs of poverty, they may incorrectly perceive this as child neglect and file a report. Race-based overreporting by healthcare professionals has been linked to a disproportionate number of Black and indigenous children entering the foster care system. One report suggests the over-reporting of Black families and under-reporting of white families by mandated reporters suggests systemic implicit bias.
Implicit Bias in Healthcare
Implicit biases are also commonly found in specific industries, such as healthcare, where implicit biases can affect the quality of care and diagnosis offered to different demographic groups.
One example of this is weight bias. Weight discrimination is reported by Americans at rates comparable to racial discrimination. Results from the Implicit Association Test (IAT) revealed that medical students and doctors demonstrated weight bias (prejudice against overweight or obese patients).
These healthcare professionals hold subconscious beliefs that obesity results from laziness or a lack of willpower and personal responsibility in patients. Healthcare professionals have expressed less desire to help overweight patients. On the receiving end, weight bias contributes to reduced healthcare utilization among patients with obesity, especially women.
Race-based bias is common in healthcare settings. A report from the National Academy of Medicine (NAM) “racial and ethnic minorities receive lower-quality health care than white people—even when insurance status, income, age, and severity of conditions are comparable.”
Another study of 400 US hospitals revealed that Black patients with heart disease received older, cheaper, and more conservative treatments than their white counterparts and that Black patients were less likely to receive coronary bypass operations.
Gender bias is also prevalent in healthcare settings. One study found that doctors view men and women differently when it comes to pain: men seeking help for chronic pain were perceived as brave, but women were seen as emotional or hysterical for the same. Women have also been historically underrepresented in medical clinical trials because of the belief that changing hormone levels would skew clinical data and make it harder to bring drugs to market.
Gender bias doesn’t just impact patients in healthcare settings; studies have shown that patients are more likely to recognize male physicians as doctors than female physicians. A common example of bias in health care comes from female doctors being mistaken for nurses while male staff members and students are mistaken for doctors.
Implicit Bias in Education
Implicit bias can show up in the classroom setting, as well. Teachers may believe that students who speak with an accent have lower writing skills and that substandard writing skills equal lower intelligence.
One example of implicit bias came from Berkeley High School, where, on the first day of class, Black juniors and seniors showing up to an honors course were assumed to be in the wrong classroom and asked to show the white teacher their schedules. The teacher’s race-based bias — that none of the honor students in his class would be Black — humiliated the students.
Not Implicit Bias: Explicit Prejudice
One example of an explicit prejudice that is not implicit bias would be a person openly expressing their discomfort at moving to a neighborhood because of its predominant ethnicity. This is an example of explicit prejudice because the individual is consciously aware of their bias and openly articulates it.
These examples offer a glimpse into how implicit biases can subtly influence our decisions and interactions, often in ways we’re not fully aware of. In contrast, explicit biases are conscious and deliberate, making them easier to identify but sometimes more challenging to address.
What is the Difference Between Implicit and Explicit Bias?
While implicit bias operates subtly and unconsciously, explicit bias is the opposite. Explicit biases are deliberate and conscious beliefs or attitudes toward certain groups. For example, openly disliking a group of people based on their ethnicity, nationality, political party, sexuality, or gender identity is an explicit bias.
Is Implicit Bias The Same As Unconscious Bias?
Implicit bias and unconscious bias are often used interchangeably. Both refer to the biases that we carry without conscious awareness. However, some argue that ‘unconscious’ suggests a deeper level of suppression, potentially linked to Freudian psychology, whereas ‘implicit’ simply means not realized consciously.
What Is Implicit Bias Training?
Many organizations have adopted implicit bias training in response to the pervasive nature of implicit biases. This training aims to make individuals aware of their biases and provide tools to adjust automatic patterns of thinking, ultimately reducing discriminatory behaviors.
Implicit bias training is becoming more popular in healthcare settings, for example.
In California, medical professionals are required to take a certain number of continuing education credits every year in order to maintain their medical licenses. This requirement includes implicit bias training courses.
How To Reduce Implicit Bias
Because implicit bias comes from a subconscious place, it can be difficult for individuals to be aware of and overcome their implicit biases. But that doesn’t mean it is impossible.
Individually, reducing implicit bias involves continuous self-awareness and adjustment of thoughts, behaviors, and actions.
- Awareness: The first step is recognizing that we all have biases. Tools like the Implicit Association Test (IAT) can help uncover them.
- Exposure: Engage with people from diverse groups. Exposure to different perspectives can challenge and ultimately change our unconscious biases.
- Question Your Assumptions: Regularly challenge your stereotypes. Ask yourself why you think a certain way and whether your assumptions are based on facts or biases.
- Education: Educate yourself about different cultures, communities, and experiences. Knowledge can be a powerful tool against ignorance and stereotyping.
- Seek Feedback: Sometimes, others can see what we can’t. Open conversations about biases with trusted friends or colleagues can be enlightening.
How Organizations Can Overcome Implicit Bias
While individuals are responsible for their beliefs, thoughts, and behaviors, organizations also hold responsibility for overcoming implicit biases. Implementing implicit bias training can help individuals become aware of the problem. Prioritizing robust, diverse, and inclusive job hiring practices can help organizations overcome hiring biases. Regularly surveying employees' sense of belonging and well-being can help highlight areas where bias may be negatively affecting those within the organization.
While implicit bias is a deeply embedded aspect of human cognition, it’s not immutable. By acknowledging its existence, understanding its roots, and actively working to counteract its effects, we can foster a more inclusive and fair society.