Understanding Implicit Bias—and How to Work Through It

It may be subconscious, but there are still ways you can break your bias.

Here's the honest truth: We are all guilty of letting certain notions color how we perceive and/or interact with others and certain situations—even if we don't realize it. The reason? Implicit bias. Implicit biases are "attitudes or stereotypes that affect a person's beliefs, actions, and decisions in an unconscious manner," says Beverly J. Vandiver, PhD, professor of human sciences and interim executive director of the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at The Ohio State University. We all carry with us unconscious prejudices for and against certain people, things, groups, or even places based on factors like our experiences, how and where we were raised, what we read, the media we've been exposed to, and who we surround ourselves with. Even if we don't realize it, we gravitate toward things that are familiar, people who are similar to us, or what we associate (even subconsciously) as being "better."

These unconscious prejudices begin to take hold when we're much younger than you might think. "Everyone is socialized from the onset of birth to have predilections about most objects, people, or groups, even when the person has not encountered them all," Vandiver says. In fact, research has revealed that implicit bias around race (think pro-White/anti-Black bias) has even occurred in kids. What's more, one study in the journal Developmental Science that examined infants showed that at just 9 months old, babies associated the faces of their own race with happy music and those faces of other races with sad music. Another infant-based study published in Child Development, found that 6- to 8-month-old infants were more inclined to learn information from an adult of their own race rather than from an adult of a different race.

The Many Forms of Implicit Bias and Its Effects

From the unfounded belief that all Asians have COVID because the pandemic began in China, to the police being called on people of color doing everyday, non-illegal things, 2021 has put a spotlight on racial- and ethnic-based implicit bias. (Some of which even cross the line into discrimination and racism; Vandiver notes that in order to be racism, the bias must be enacted verbally, behaviorally, or in written form and inflict some intended negative consequences on the person of color for being that ethnicity or race.) This phenomenon of implicit bias, however, is not limited to racial and ethnic issues, and it can revolve around gender, sexual orientation, religion, disability, and more.

For example, a study in the 2020 Journal of Experimental Social Psychology revealed that there is an inherent thinking that possessing the quality of brilliance—having exceptional talent or intelligence—is most associated with men. According to the study, it's this thinking that often finds "women are underrepresented in careers where success is perceived to depend on high levels of intellectual ability." We can likely draw a direct correlation between this type of implicit bias and the number of women who are currently at the helm of Fortune 500 companies as CEOs. (By the way, that number is a mere 41, of which only two are Black women.)

In 2019, research out of University of Michigan, which surveyed 300,000 U.S. residents with and without disabilities, found that participants did, in fact, show implicit bias when it came to those with disabilities (that was characterized by researchers as some sort of physical, mental, or emotional limitation). What's more: The implicit bias grew over time.

Vandiver says that one of the most challenging biases right now is the change in language about gender pronouns. "Most people in U.S. society over the age of 50 may have difficulty in making the transition to using the plural pronoun 'they' for a person who does not identify as either male or female," she says. "Most people have been socialized to use he/she or him/her based on common identifiers that have been deemed by society as phenotypically female or male. Thus, many people will have implicit bias based on language and gender identification." This gender bias is unconscious, and only comes into their awareness when they are informed about misusing the pronouns.

Despite implicit bias being an unconscious act, it still has repercussions for those who experience it. According to Vandiver the recipient can question themselves and their experience, asking themselves things such as, "what did I do wrong" or "what did I just hear?" "They may experience confusion, anxiety, depression, sadness, anger, or any combination of feelings," she says, adding that the recipient may feel judged for not being good enough.

Working Through Implicit Bias Is Like Breaking Any Bad Habit

So how do you combat it? It takes work and can be difficult, but it's doable. For starters, if you're called out on your own implicit biases (which, again, we all have), use that as a learning opportunity. That can be a first signal to be more mindful of your thoughts and actions. And if you are aware, that's half of the solution right there. But still, it's only half: Awareness alone is insufficient, Vandiver says. There are actual techniques that must be employed to work against certain ingrained biases that you carry. For example, staying plugged into mindful awareness can be exceptionally helpful. This requires slowing down and no longer constantly running through life on autopilot, and operating from a state of being conscious in each moment. When you do this, you're more likely to be in tune with your inherent beliefs and actions and work against them, rather than simply acting on them reflexively. Mindfulness also cultivates empathy and broadens your perspective, which helps open your mind and see things from other points of view. Remember, too, not to shy away from uncomfortable conversations about yours and others' biases, prejudiced thinking, and other normal human experiences.

It's about awareness followed by habit-breaking. "It is no different when a person decides not to curse all of the time, or no longer calls a childhood friend by a disdained nickname," says Vandiver, noting that it takes time to change biases, specifically racial and gender-based ones. "The keys are commitment, motivation, and persistence to change." And beyond individual bias, Vandiver says there is needed work in organizations throughout the country. "Yes, bias training has proliferated across the U.S., but organizations must assess the infrastructure for bias, make changes, and then hold everyone accountable from the CEO to every employee to make effort toward change."

And don't forget that working on reducing and preventing implicit bias is a lifelong pursuit. We all constantly need to pause, think twice, reevaluate ourselves, put ourselves in other people's shoes, and do the work to do better moving forward.

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