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What is implicit bias and why should we care?

“The more we know people for who they are, the less we treat them as what they are.”

“Being biased is how we get through life without everything being brand new every time we experience it” - social psychologist, Brett Pelham.

Bias is essential for survival. Everyone has unconscious biases and they influence us in ways we can hardly imagine or therefore control. Following copious studies of it, we know that virtually all bias is indeed unconscious or implicit. How, then, can we reasonably criticise someone for reacting in a way that they are not even consciously aware of in the first place? Note that this does not exempt people from the impact of their behaviour, nor does it mean they are not responsible for it. All of us are responsible for our behaviour.

It is not inherently good or inherently bad, it is just there. Fundamentally, bias is often defined as an “unreasoned judgement” or “prejudice”, and therefore the word carries a stigma. The following discourse implies that anyone who is subject to this is simply a bigot and practices discrimination. The idea prevails, that bias should, therefore, be eliminated. However, this notion has been challenged and rightly so; very often, being biased is conflated with people being controlled by their ingrained survival strategies instilled by nature herself, and hence acting inappropriately.

Consider a science experiment. Scientists divorce themselves from bias as objective observers to solely consider evidence and rationale. This is a sensible thing to do. In the search for truth, fallacies are discarded and theories are dissected. This is the mode of scientific enquiry. However, does this translate directly from human nature? Are we better off ignoring our intuition and instincts?

The human brain: a remarkable achievement

New research findings reveal how unconscious bias originates and its workings in the brain. What distinguishes humans from all other animals? Opposable thumbs, bipedalism and higher cognitive functioning fall second to the prefrontal neocortex (PFC). This enables metacognition – the capacity to think about thinking (think Descartes “Cogito ergo sum” or I think therefore I am). Subsequently, this allows humans to able to experience, contemplate and reflect on thoughts and behaviour more rigorously than other species. However, the pure computational power of the PFC is relatively minute compared to the autonomic parts of the brain, which are more well established and robust. After all, they have been around for much longer. We naturally rely on these automatic functions and reactions to conserve mental resources since the brain would become remarkably inefficient if we had to stop and think deeply about every stimulus (aside from the pursuits of philosophy). This is a safety mechanism, practically none of us would react quickly enough to avoid getting burnt by a stove or hitting the brake in time to avoid a collision. Ignoring our intuition, therefore, does not always lead to helpful outcomes. In Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink, he outlines how harnessing our intuition can actually be very helpful, drawing examples from science, medicine (including malpractice suits), sales/advertising, gambling, speed dating (and predicting divorce), tennis, or buying stocks. “There can be as much value in the blink of an eye as in months of rational analysis.”

Since the time of Plato, we have generally believed that our rational minds need to control all our myriad desires (known as the appetite) for various pleasures, comforts and physical satisfactions, in order to function at the highest level. He taught that those controlled by their emotional or subconscious mind should be resented for it, which seems an arrogant assertion to make, being a victim of them himself. Reason does not rule over our appetite, it scarcely succeeds in repressing it.

A few types of bias

In “Everyday Bias”, a Cook Ross 2014 publication, bias is organised into ten discrete categories – a few of which are summarised below.

Diagnosis bias: Our inclination to label people, ideas, or things based on our initial perceived opinion. This also involves automatic perception - reflex actions that assign feelings based on previous expectations. Often this leads us to maintain flawed assumptions, potentially compartmentalising completely disparate things.

Pattern recognition: This is the tendency to organise and identify information based on prior experience or habit. Acting as a protective mechanism, it allows species to assume an unfamiliar situation reflects that of one already experienced (such as staying away from a hot stove after being burnt by it once before). The flaw with this is that this assumes the new stimulus is identical or poses the same threat as the last. Safety outweighs the curiosity to explore and fairly assess the new situation for what it is.

Value attribution: An example of this was documented in the Washington Post, where the noted violinist Joshua Bell was asked to play in a subway station in Washington D.C., appearing as the quintessential freelance subway musician.  Surprisingly no one stopped to listen, despite the fact that the night before, he had sold out the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. You could argue that there are fewer willing listeners in a subway but the effect of appearance is still astonishing.

A particularly interesting case: Stereotype threat

This is when an individual has the potential to confirm a negative stereotype about their social group. Also known as “internalized oppression”, the reminder of someone’s race and therefore connotations associated with it can have a negative impact which has been measured before. An experiment which influenced the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education school desegregation ruling was when Drs. Mamie and Kenneth Clark worked with black children who, when offered white or black dolls to play with, preferred to play with white dolls. More recently, Professor Claude Steele discovered that simply requesting Africa American students to confirm their race before their SATs has significantly lowered their test scores. Being reminded of being black seemed to provoke a negative performance bias; the power of internalised oppression surfaces. In contrast, a similar study into this stereotype susceptibility in 1995 by psychology professors M Shih, T Pittinsky and N Ambady showed that Asian female students were shown to perform significantly higher on maths tests when primed with their Asian identity rather than with their female identity. Priming is a remarkably powerful phenomenon, where exposure to one stimulus influences a response to a subsequent stimulus, without conscious guidance or intention. Primed with their Asian identity (the first stimulus of being asked about their ethnicity), the individual seemed to unconsciously adopt the values associated with it and perform better on a test (the subsequent stimulus).

Having being introduced to some of the types of bias humans fall victim to and also appreciating how they have established our survival as a species, there still lies the fact that in modern society they can pose as more of a hindrance. The ultimate goal should not be to eliminate bias, but to recognise it and intervene when and where it impedes personal, social and organisational productivity.

What we can do

How can we see bias in others if we are not even willing to look at it within ourselves?

We cannot alter the intricate brain chemistry which has evolved over hundreds of thousands of years. The only solution is to change what is outside our brains, to consciously change the unexpected into the expected so that we aren’t exclusively subject to unconscious hormonal reactions that keep our society from moving forward. How do we do that? Try to:

  1. Visualise situations before they happen (an interview, an appointment, a dinner)
  2. Examine your own behaviour (Have the courage to assess your behaviour: is this how I would behave if this person looked like me/didn’t look like me?)
  3. Normalise (Make a conscious effort to expose yourself and others to that which is unexpected. We normalise events by making them possible.) Fortunately, our brains have very good neuroplasticity, which is the ability to create new neural pathways to facilitate learning and acquisition of new experiences.

Some last thoughts:

Perhaps we are indeed enhanced iterations of Pavlov’s dogs, salivating at the stimulus of some meat powder. Our disposition is governed by nature and always will be. Yet we own a harness for it to some extent, which we can learn how to use. We have to condemn the complacent and off-hand remarks along the lines that it is too late, or there is not much you as an individual, can do to change. Look within yourself and be critical. Don’t acquiesce what seems wrong, question and have the courage to speak up. Maybe then, we’ll find the willingness and humility to know we can do better.

This article was written by Year 13 student Nithil, inspired by the events of racial injustice during the 2020 protests.