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How Do Your Implicit Biases Impact Your Relationships?

Research explores how we might gain control of our implicit biases.

The nightly news anchor announces an upcoming story about a man shooting a police officer during a robbery. What images flash in your head? Most likely, the person whose face appears in your mind is based on implicit bias.

Implicit bias: The attitudes or stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions, and decisions in an unconscious manner. Activated involuntarily, without awareness or intentional control. Can be either positive or negative. Everyone is susceptible. (State of Science: Implicit Bias Review, 2017)

In part, implicit bias occurs because our brains engage in numerous automatic, unconscious activities. This is our brain’s way of making sense of what it sees and hears rapidly and with little effort.

According to the Implicit Bias Review, key characteristics of implicit bias are:

  • Unconscious and automatic: They are activated without an individuals’ intention or control.
  • Pervasive: Everyone possesses them, even those avowing commitments to impartiality.
  • Do not always align with explicit beliefs: Implicit and explicit biases are generally regarded as related but distinct mental constructs.
  • Have real-world effects on behavior: As discussed in this publication and other editions of the State of the Science: Implicit Bias Review, significant research has documented real-world effects of implicit bias across domains such as employment, education, and criminal justice, among others.
  • Are malleable: The biases and associations we have formed can be “unlearned” and replaced with new mental associations.

Our minds are constantly taking “shortcuts” to make sense of constant sensory input. Look at the first image in the optical illusion below. Which square, A or B, is a darker shade of gray?

Edward Adelson/Perci mit edu
Source: Edward Adelson/Perci mit edu

Now, look at the second image. This image shows that both squares, A and B, are the same shade when gray bars connect the two squares. Our brains create assumptions to understand the external world. Sometimes, our brains mishandle the information producing incorrect assumptions.

When the brain accurately categorizes input, we efficiently make sense of the outside world with little time or effort. Automation at its best. However, the brain can be tragically flawed in its assumptions which can have serious real-life consequences.

Studies have confirmed the real world impact of implicit bias as it shows up in schools, medical care, the criminal justice system in addition to day to day interpersonal interactions. You might remember the news stories about the African American Obstetrician/Gynecologist, Dr. Tamika Cross, who was denied the opportunity to help a sick passenger aboard a Delta Airlines flight. What assumptions did the flight attendant make about Dr. Cross that led her to reject Dr. Cross’ attempt to render aid?

Implicit bias leads to those snap judgments we make on a daily basis. It influences how we choose the people we associate with from our friends to our doctor. In the premiere episode of the drama “This is Us,” the family matriarch is struggling to deliver her 6 weeks premature triplets. In between contractions, the obstetrician, an older white man, walks in. He is a substitute for her regular doctor, who is dealing with his own medical emergency.

After a brief introduction, the obstetrician states “Sweetheart, I’m gonna get to your first concern. Look at me. I am 73 years old. You know what that means don’t you? It means I don’t run wind sprints as fast as I used to.” He goes on to reassure her that he is perfectly capable of helping her deliver her babies. But, walking into the room, he recognizes where implicit bias has taken her and her husband. “Is this old doctor competent to deliver our babies?”

Implicit bias grows from our early experiences and models of behavior. As children, we observe the adults around us to inform our own values, beliefs and perceptions.

In addition to forming implicit biases, humans instinctively sort into “ingroups.” This happens when people preferentially identify with a group based on factors such as race or ethnicity. Our implicit biases further consolidate affiliation with our ingroups. On the surface, these associations can create feelings of security and comfort.

The American Psychological Association dictionary defines ingroup bias as “the tendency to favor one’s own group, its members, its characteristics, and its products, particularly in reference to other groups.”

While researchers have suggested that ingroup bias has evolutionary roots, it can also lead to divisiveness and outgroup rejection. We become much more comfortable with those who look, act, think and talk like us. At best, this gives a feeling of inclusiveness and a sense of belonging. At its worst, this can lead to rejection and intolerance of those who are different.

So how do we “outthink” our pre-programmed nature? Researchers have explored different techniques for reversing individuals’ implicit biases. In a 2015 study, researchers exposed participants to anti-bias content, concerning race and gender, prior to going to sleep. The researchers hypothesized that during sleep, these anti-bias messages would consolidate into new memories that would change the participants’ bias. In this study, biases were immediately reduced and effects were still present up to 1 week after training.

Another study, in 2014, looked at using mindfulness training to create new associations that were less influenced by implicit bias. In this study, compared with participants who listened to control audio, those who listened to mindfulness audio showed an increase in mindfulness and a decrease in implicit race and age bias.

However, some experts argue that these are not sustainable changes with some studies showing the return of previously held biases.

Whether or not science has found a way to reduce implicit bias long-term, our relationships with one another will likely improve if we are aware of our biological tendencies and are motivated to reduce the negative impact of these tendencies. At one end of the spectrum, biases can be limiting giving us an incomplete view of reality. At the other end, biases can lead to behavior that is hurtful and even deadly.

Create Awareness

We can start by recognizing our tendencies. Self-awareness and knowledge about how our brains work can lead to important perceptual and behavioral changes. Recognizing our snap judgments in real time allows us to reconsider our beliefs.

Do Something Different

Who do you consider part of your social circle? Who do you engage with or more importantly, who do you disengage with on social media? Do you seek the comfort of people who think, look and act like you? If so, then consider how limiting this can be. Seek activities and social settings that allow you to connect with people of different races, ethnicities, genders and ages. For example, if you are a college student, go volunteer at a nursing home in a neighborhood that you wouldn’t typically visit.

When we engage with people who are different from us, we have the opportunity to challenge our beliefs and perspectives. Openness to a different perspective helps us grow into better versions of ourselves.

Engage Intentionally

So step out and spend time with others outside of your comfort zone. Be open to new people with new ideas, lifestyles and perspectives. Listen to their stories and be prepared to grow in your understanding of what it really is to be uniquely human.

LinkedIn Image Credit:


Hu, X., Antony, J., Creery, J., Vargas, I., Bodenhausen, G., Paller, K. (2015). Unlearning Implicit Social Biases During Sleep. Science

Lueke, A., Gibson, B. (2014). Mindful Meditation Reduces Implicit Age and Race Bias: The Role of Reduced Automaticity of Responding. Social Psychological and Personality Science.

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