Overcoming implicit bias


Jason Collins


March 4, 2015

I have been working through The Behavioral Foundations of Public Policy, edited by Eldar Shafir, and have mixed views so far. As I go through, I will note some interesting points.

The opening substantive chapter by Curtis Hardin and Mahzarin Banaji is on bias - and particularly implicit bias. Implicit biases are unconscious negative (or positive) attitudes towards a person or group. Most people who claim (and believe) they are not biased because they don’t show explicit bias will nevertheless have implicit bias that affects their actions.

There is no shortage of tests out there on implicit bias (here’s one set, although you have to fill out a set of surveys before you get to play) and they consistently show that implicit bias exists. Even when you know it is occurring, it’s hard to overcome. Playing with the tests when writing this post, I came up with a strong automatic preference for thin over fat people.

As the chapter is in a book on public policy, it turns to how policy makers should deal with implicit bias. It has a generally optimistic tone about the potential to reduce implicit bias - one that I don’t necessarily share from a public policy perspective - so the paragraphs that stood out for me indicated how complicated any plans to intervene would be.

Research also suggests that the interpersonal regulation of implicit prejudice is due in part to a motivation to affiliate with others who are presumed to hold specific values related to prejudice, as implied by shared reality theory (e.g., Hardin and Conley, 2001). For example, participants exhibited less implicit racial prejudice in the presence of an experimenter wearing a T-shirt with an antiracism message than a blank T-shirt, but only when the experimenter was likeable (Sinclair et al., 2005). When the experimenter was not likeable, implicit prejudice was actually greater in the presence of the ostensibly egalitarian experimenter. In addition, social tuning in these experiments was mediated by the degree to which participants liked the experimenter, providing converging evidence that interpersonal dynamics play a role in the modulation of implicit prejudice, as they do in other dimensions of social cognition (Hardin and Conley, 2001; Hardin and Higgins, 1996).

As regards public and personal policy, these findings suggest that a public stance for egalitarian values is a double-edged sword, and a sharp one at that. Although it may reduce implicit prejudice among others when espoused by someone who is likeable and high in status, it may backfire when espoused by someone who is not likeable or otherwise of marginal status. This finding suggests one mechanism by which common forms of “sensitivity training” in service of the reduction of workplace sexism and racism may be subverted by interpersonal dynamics, however laudable the goals.

I’m guessing that in many scenarios government and its agents would fall into the “not likeable or otherwise of marginal status” category.