IMPLICIT BIAS – WHAT IS IT AND WHAT CAN WE DO ABOUT IT?

Blue Sky

I recently gave a presentation about implicit bias to a group of visiting nurses in Des Moines.  Asking someone to give a speech about implicit bias is like asking someone to give a presentation about the sky.  It can go in a million directions and finding a way to focus can be difficult.  I took a more general approach, and I think it was pretty well received.  It had been awhile since I looked at implicit bias or updated my research, and I was pleasantly surprised to see that it seems to be trending right now.

I consider the founders of Project Implicit to be the pioneers of implicit bias research and responsible for bringing it mainstream over the past few years.  In 1998 three scientists founded Project Implicit to educate the public about hidden biases and create a virtual laboratory to collect data on the internet regarding implicit bias.  Implicit bias is defined as “thoughts and feelings outside of conscious awareness and control,” largely driven by attitudes (evaluations of a concept) and stereotypes (beliefs that most members of a group have some characteristic).  According to Project Implicit, our biases can be explicit or implicit.  Biases are implicit because we do not want to admit we have them, or we don’t even know the bias exists.

We don’t even know the bias exists?  What?

If the concept of implicit bias is difficult for you to digest, you are not alone.  Laszlo Block, an HR exec at Google, provides a very user-friendly introduction to implicit bias and how it affects our decision making:  “These biases are shaped by our experiences and by cultural norms, and allow us to filter information and make quick decisions . . . [w]e’ve evolved to trust our guts. But sometimes these mental shortcuts can lead us astray, especially when they cause us to misjudge people. … Combating our unconscious biases is hard, because they don’t feel wrong; they feel right.”

Those who visit Project Implicit’s website can take several tests that use timing and visual recognition to measure bias about several topics including gender, disability, skin tone, age, and weapons.  A test taker than gets what is essentially a “bias score” on any given topic.  Results are interesting and almost always surprising.

Still not convinced?  Do a quick web search.  A topic that did not garner widespread acceptance a few years ago, implicit or unconscious bias has more recently leapt into the mainstream.  Facebook recently started providing bias training to its workforce and posted the training online for public consumption.  Google puts its employees through “bias busting” workshops.

In my opinion, the most helpful aspect of implicit bias being a hot news topic right now is that it educates people we need not be “sexist” to make decisions based on a person’s sex; we need not be “racist” to make decisions based on a person’s race, and so on.  It also highlights what we can do about it, such as working to remain aware of our biases to make sure that our behavior is not influenced by those biases.  And, believe it or not, there’s an app for that.  The Wall Street Journal reports there are several new apps out there to “help reduce gender and racial discrimination in the workplace.”  Check them out and see what you think.

photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/130789225@N04/19082138580″>wallpaper 3005</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a&gt; <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/”>(license)</a&gt;

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