Diversity As A Way To Challenge Our Thinking

What is Implicit Bias?

Categorizing people into schema based on differences originated as a means of sorting them as either “friend” or “foe.” For our distant ancestors, these associations were crucial for survival. As such, it is “wired into our DNA” to develop associations and mental categories although diversity no longer implies potential danger in the way it might have to our distant ancestors (McNutt, 2016). Society now welcomes diversity as a way to challenge our thinking and our actions, and blatant discrimination is no longer endorsed or acceptable.

However, as Fisher and Borgida (2012) identify, a mental shift regarding active prejudice is not enough to eliminate social disparities. Though some might attribute these persisting disparities to broader socioeconomic gaps, research has shown that most individuals have a natural preference for individuals who belong to the same social groups as they do (Stepanikova, Triplett, & Simpson, 2011; Fisher & Borgida, 2012). These preferences can be identified as implicit associations. Stepanikova et al. (2011) found that although most Americans deem racism as unacceptable, underlying, negative feelings towards outgroups are still rampant.

As researchers Cooley, Payne, and Phillips (2014) described, “implicit attitudes may come to mind and affect behavior even despite intentions to the contrary.” However, an implicit association is not an implicit bias until it affects judgment or behavior (Holroyd, 2015). In order to identify implicit associations, one must undergo intense self-reflection, and even after identification, these associations still operate “beyond direct control” and can seep into our thoughts and actions, acting as biases (Stepanikova et al., 2011; Holroyd, Scaife, & Stafford, 2017).

Though there is some evidence that individuals can reduce the impact of their implicit associations, because they operate almost entirely outside of our awareness, they never completely disappear even if one is able to develop strategies for addressing them (McNutt, 2016). To prevent implicit associations from influencing one’s thoughts and actions to be biased requires a constant journey of self-awareness and reflection (Whitford & Emerson, 2018).

How is it Measured?

Before beginning this journey, it is necessary to uncover one’s implicit associations. Because people are often ashamed or unaware of their associations, it is difficult to get an accurate measure of associations through self-reporting methods (Holroyd, 2015). Though there are several methods that have been used to study implicit biases, perhaps the most notable is the Implicit Association Test (IAT) developed by Harvard University’s Project Implicit group (Fisher & Borgida, 2012). “The logic of the IAT capitalizes on the well-established tendency for people to respond more quickly to concepts that are closely associated in their minds” (Stepanikova et al., 2011).

Using this logic, the IAT avoids relying on respondents to self-report and thus is able to more accurately measure implicit association in several categories (Holroyd et al., 2017). The IAT has received numerous critiques. Two of the most vocal critics, Tetlock and Mitchell, most recently questioned the IAT’s ability to measure levels of implicit association, arguing that emotional factors, such as test anxiety or sympathy for underserved populations, interfere with the test’s validity (Fisher & Borgida, 2012).

Additionally, they point out that it is extremely difficult to predict the correlation between IAT scores and consciously controlled behavior (Fisher & Borgida, 2012). Landy, another IAT critic, argues further that the IAT is an improper representation of real-world experiences (Fisher & Borgida, 2012). He argues, without evidence, that the IAT cannot predict workplace behavior because coworkers know personal information about one another, which he calls individuating information, and thus will not act upon stereotypes and implicit associations (Fisher & Borgida, 2012).

IAT researchers have responded to these critiques and more with additional research and clarification, including studies that show the test’s predictive validity in many real-world settings such as hiring processes and medical treatment (Fisher & Borgida, 2012). Harm of Implicit Bias While more is known about the effect of implicit bias on nonverbal behaviors, such as facial expressions and body language, the consequences implicit bias could have on society through more consciously controlled behaviors if unaddressed are of concern for psychologists and researchers alike (Stepanikova et al., 2011; Fisher & Borgida, 2012).

As evidenced in the Journal of Social Issues special series on disparities, implicit bias seems to affect to some degree professional, legal, and medical disparities (Fisher & Borgida, 2012). The following two paragraphs will examine a specific case of each a medical disparity and an employment disparity. First, Eggly, Griggs, Orom, Penner, and Underwood examined cancer treatments for Black and White patients and found that care for Black patients was generally substandard (Fisher & Borgida, 2012). They recorded that in addition to Black patients not receiving thorough treatment information, they were also less likely to receive definitive treatment options and appropriate chemotherapy doses (Fisher & Borgida, 2012).

Though these alarming disparities could be caused by greater socioeconomic inequality, the study found that the disparities persist even when Black patients have identical insurance plans as White patients (Fisher & Borgida, 2012). Thus, this study is among others that suggest that physicians’ behavior is affected by their implicit biases, and these biases have a negative effect on the health outcomes of minority groups (Fisher & Borgida, 2012). Another study found that similar racial disparities existed among male and female job candidates (Holroyd et al., 2017). Employers were asked to identify their potential biases and ability to choose candidates objectively, and despite nonbiased self-reports, female resumes were less likely to receive positive ratings than male resumes (Holroyd et al., 2017). The comparison of their self-reports to their actual behavior suggests the bias is unintentional and unbeknownst to the evaluators (Holroyd et al., 2017).

Regardless of intention or level of awareness, these implicit biases affect behavior and leave minority groups under-evaluated and underserved. Addressing Implicit Bias Society perpetuates racial and cultural stereotypes, and people unknowingly internalize these stereotypes and develop implicit biases (Whitford & Emerson, 2018). Because this process is carried out in the subconscious, these biases influence thoughts and behaviors without one ever realizing (McNutt, 2016).

Though difficult to address, researchers have found that personal awareness and perspective taking are the most powerful tools available to reduce the impact of implicit bias, though the results are often temporary, suggesting a need for frequent reflection on one’s own biases (Whitford & Emerson, 2018). To invest people in changing their behavior, they must first be aware of how they contribute to the problem, and similarly, to promote empathy, one must seek to understand another’s experiences (Whitford & Emerson, 2018). Another study suggests that in addition to being aware of one biases, it is also valuable in reducing the power of implicit bias to be aware of how society labels people (Scroggins, Mackie, Allen, & Sherman, 2016). People are more likely to perpetuate unjust, biased thoughts and behavior when someone is labeled negatively (Scroggins et al., 2016).

03 December 2019
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