Going through day-to-day life creates hidden biases in each of us. Though we aren’t aware of these thoughts, they can actually distort how we see the world around us. This distorted perception or more formally termed “implicit bias” can impair our personal and workplace functioning.
Even though people usually don’t recognize these biases, they still have powerful effects on our behavior. Implicit biases can lead to uncomfortable social interactions, inaccurate judgements of other people, and even affect workplace performance. The most challenging part of reducing implicit biases is learning how to recognize them.
Our team of researchers have combed through hundreds of peer-reviewed social, cognitive, and industrial/organizational psychology articles to provide you with the best possible tips for reducing implicit bias.
So how can you recognize and control implicit biases to help you improve your judgements and make better decisions at work and beyond? This post will cover four steps:
- Step 1: Learn where implicit biases come from.
- Step 2: Recognize when implicit biases are affecting your judgements and decisions.
- Step 3: Control your implicit biases (or at least limit them).
- Bonus: What you can do if you feel like bias has affected you personally.
Step 1: Learn where your implicit biases come from.
To be able to recognize implicit biases, first understand how your brain learns stereotypes and becomes biased.
Stereotypes are mental shortcuts that aid us in social interactions that we learn from culture. From watching TV to going to school, we are always processing cultural information in our mind. The messages we receive from culture about people is how we learn to group them.
Stereotypes are not inherently bad. They help us make quick judgments and reduce mental exertion. When stereotypes affect your automatic judgements and subsequent behavior without you even realizing it, this is “implicit bias.”
At this point, you might be thinking that you don’t endorse stereotypes nor do you let biases influence your decisions. Let’s take a look at how cultural stereotypes can influence our perceptions.
When you think of cities in the US that are associated with heavy alcohol use, what pops in your mind?
Do you think of cities like Las Vegas, Miami, and New Orleans?
In reality, those cities are not even close to the top of alcohol consumption lists. The vast majority of US cities with the highest drinking rates are relatively small towns in the Midwest (e.g., Green Bay, Wisconsin, Fargo, North Dakota).
So why don’t we associate the Midwest with binge drinking? Well, this information doesn’t align with most cultural stereotypes about Midwesterners. On top of that, cities like Miami and New Orleans are over represented as “party” cities.
So why are implicit biases “hidden?”
The psychological process behind implicit bias is very different from explicit endorsement of stereotypes. While explicit stereotypes/biases result from controlled thoughts, beliefs, and intentions, implicit stereotypes/biases are learned through repeated exposure.
Though we can’t “see” implicit bias, novel experiments can show how they influence our perceptions and behaviors.
One study asked participants to rate who was more qualified for a job — a man or a woman. Some participants were told that the man had more education and the woman had more work experience, while other participants were told the opposite (ie, the man has more work experience, while the woman has more education).
People tended to choose the male applicant no matter what qualifications he had. Participants who were told the male applicant had more education justified their decision by claiming education was more important, and participants who were told he had more work experience claimed work experience was more important for the job.
This study suggests that implicit biases can impair rational thinking such that we are always able to justify our decisions even if they are driven by hidden biases.
Once you develop a mental association (implicit bias), your mind does not care about whether it is accurate or not. It wants to continue to strengthen the association, which is why you can start perceiving the world around you in a biased manner. This is how biases can distort reality.
Implicit biases sometimes create inaccurate judgements. Depending on what culture we live in, we often receive misinformation about different groups of people. Or sometimes we receive accurate information, but only about one small portion of a social group that is not representative of the whole.
To become aware of your biases, think about how culture represents different social groups. We learn a lot about different groups of people from the media (news, social media sites, movies). Let’s take a closer look at how the media can influence us.
See how easily you can answer the following questions:
- Can you think of a favorite movie or TV character that may be engaged in violent, criminal behavior, but that you admire and root for?
- Are you thinking of characters like Tony Soprano (The Sopranos), Walter White (Breaking Bad), Tony Montana (Scarface), or Tyler Durden (Fight Club)?
- Now can you think of any Muslim characters that are violent and criminal, but are still portrayed as a sympathetic protagonist? What about a Black or Latinx character?
Not only are Muslim characters and racial minorities – Black and Latinx – over represented as criminals on TV and movies, but they are also less likely to be depicted as a complex protagonist, compared to White men. They are often represented as two-dimensional “bad guys” that viewers are supposed to root against. Whereas when White characters are associated with violence, they are often portrayed as a morally complex character that viewers are supposed to sympathize with (think about the cast of Game of Thrones). Lack of complex representation strengthens stereotypes and can influence our implicit bias.
TV and movies present a more stereotypical world than what exists in real life
Movies and TV shows also over represent men and White people (at least in Western countries like the US, Canada, and Europe), compared to women and racial minorities. Lack of representation on screen affects our perceptions too. It sends subtle cues about who belongs in what positions.
Remember that these visual representations accumulate over time and impact our automatic evaluations of different groups of people. Yes, even fictional representations influence our perceptions!
- Going forward, when you are watching the news, TV, or even commercials, take a step back and think about how people are being represented. Most importantly, remember that depictions on TV, movies, and commercials do not accurately reflect real life.
Though racial and gender implicit biases are common, people can also hold implicit biases regarding sexual orientation, age, religion, and socio-economic status. Try to acknowledge cultural stereotypes and understand that they may influence our judgments and decisions. Learning about your implicit biases is the first step to start controlling them.
Step 2: Recognize when implicit biases may affect your judgements and decisions, and expose yourself to non-stereotypical people.
Though implicit biases are usually outside of our conscious awareness, they still influence our decisions and behaviors. People typically believe we consciously control all of our actions and decisions, but in reality our behaviors are driven by a complex interaction of thoughts, attitudes, and memories.
While people may explicitly reject negative stereotypes, their implicit biases may reveal that they unconsciously associate men with more competence than women or Black men with the group criminal.
Research finds that implicit bias is an even stronger predictor of some discriminatory behaviors than explicit attitudes.
To understand how implicit bias may affect your judgements, consider some common examples of implicit bias in different settings. Could your life involve implicit bias in any of these types of situations
- The Workplace
- Managers are more likely to recommend harsher sanctions to older employees, compared to younger employees, for poor work performance.
- Across industries, White applicants are 36% more likely to receive a callback compared to equally qualified Black applicants, and 24% more likely to receive a callback compared to equally qualified Latinx applicants.
- Medical Interactions
- Female patients suffering from cardiac heart disease symptoms are more likely than male patients to be misdiagnosed as having mental health issue.
- Racial minorities are more likely to be recommended for unnecessary surgeries, compared to White patients.
- Research also finds that physicians on average are less likely to prescribe pain medication to Black patients, compared to White patients.
- The Legal System
Before you can control your implicit biases, become aware of what biases may affect you.
To measure your personal implicit biases, follow this link to Harvard University’s famous Implicit Associations Test.
- You will be given the option to take many different types of association tests. For example, if you are interested in measuring your sexual orientation associations, select the “Sexuality IAT” option.
- You will respond to a couple of self-reported questions that measure your explicit attitudes toward gay and straight people.
- Then you will complete the Implicit Association Test, which will assess your implicit bias toward gay and straight people.
- After the implicit association test, you will be asked some demographic questions about yourself. Feel free to skip any questions you don’t want to answer about yourself.
- At the end, you will be given a score that reflects the strength of automatic associations (i.e., “slight”, “moderate”, “strong”, or “no preference”). The entire process will take 10-15 minutes.
So how can you minimize unhelpful implicit biases to make better decisions?
Keep an open mind and expose yourself to diverse representations and exemplars.
Be open to people and situations that do not fit what you believe to be the prototype. In the workplace, we mean what you think of as the “typical” or standard employee for a given role.
- When I say CEO – what mental image appears in your head? What about a politician? Doctor? Lawyer? Leader? Are your mental images filled with men and White people? That’s a common reaction.
- Try replacing your mental images and associations with more diverse representation on a regular basis. Think about real-life examples such as Maya Barra (CEO, General Motors) or Barack Obama (US President).
The automatic image that pops into your head when you hear or read different words that are out of your control, but you are in control of replacing those images. This process, over time, can improve your implicit biases.
Step 3. Learn to control your implicit biases with slower, more deliberate decision strategies.
The good news is that controlling our implicit biases is possible! It takes effort and time, but we each have the ability to improve the accuracy of our judgements and decisions.
Make important decisions slower and more deliberate. One of the most effective ways to control implicit bias is to reflect on your behaviors and decisions with the knowledge that these biases exist and continuously affect our decisions. Therefore, relying on your first instincts may lead you astray.
Next time you need to make a work-related decision (for example, you need to hire a new employee or assign a project to a specific employee) follow the steps below.
- Make sure you aren’t rushed when you make this decision. Take time to think about all your options.
- Write out the most important information needed to make your decision. Consider which specific, objective criteria are most relevant. For instance, if you need to hire a new employee, is experience, specific training, availability, or another qualification most important? Clearly articulate your reasons for all of the potential options.
- Now make your decision. That’s it!
The process to reduce implicit bias takes time and effortful control. When you are making important decision try to avoid “intuitive reactions,” because they are often inaccurate but feel right. Implicit biases are built from lifelong experiences. These cannot be undone immediately, but if you are aware of how they influence your behavior, you can begin to control them.
Step 4. Bonus tip for people who have been affected by cultural stereotypes.
Cultural stereotypes can greatly impact women and racial minorities’ perceptions of themselves and their abilities. They can also affect men and non-minorities when members of those groups act non-stereotypically–such as stay-at-home dads or male assistants.
When they receive cultural messages that devalue their social group, this can cause them to doubt their performance and ability. This can result in impaired workplace performances, lower confidence, and reduced well-being.
How can individuals combat negative messages about their social group?
Ideally, workplaces should eliminate systemic bias. However, since workplace bias won’t be solved tomorrow, a complementary method is to provide employees with strategies to cope with bias.
For example, exposure to in-group peers, mentors, and role-models can counteract negative stereotypes about their social group and promote more positive implicit associations. So if you feel you may have been harmed by implicit biases:
- Think about an expert or a leader in your field of work, who is a member of your social group.
- Think about all of the things this person has accomplished and their positive qualities.
- Now imagine yourself following a similar life trajectory. Imagine yourself accomplishing similar goals and performing well on work-related tasks.
Even more effective than imagining an in-group expert or leader is to interact with them, if possible. Consider whether you could work on a project with them or attend networking events where they will be. This will allow you to identify with people at the top of your field, and in turn strengthen your workplace identity, which can buffer against negative cultural stereotypes. This can improve your well-being, reduce rumination, and improve cognitive performance.
Recap of how to reduce implicit bias to improve your judgements and decisions
Reducing your implicit biases has the potential to improve your daily interactions, increase the accuracy of your social evaluations, and improve your judgments and decisions. To begin reducing your implicit bias,
- Learn where implicit biases come from.
- Be aware of cultural stereotypes around you (e.g., in the media or social settings) and how they may influence your thoughts and perceptions.
- Recognize your implicit biases, and expose yourself to diverse exemplars.
- Learn about people from diverse backgrounds (e.g. race/ethnicity, age, gender) in a variety of careers (e.g., lawyer, engineer, senator).
- Learn to control your implicit biases when making decisions (or at least limit them).
- Take time to deliberate on important judgments and decisions. Remember that implicit biases may affect your “intuitive reactions,” and try to apply objective decision-making criteria.
- Bonus tip to help people cope with negative stereotypes about their social group.
- Learn about in-group role models in your field and imagine yourself experiencing similar success. If you get the opportunity, try interacting with in-group exemplars.