What If Many of Us Are Biased and We Don't Know It?

09/04/2013 02:39 pm 14:39:29 | Updated Nov 02, 2013

President Obama urged each of us to become a modern-day marcher for economic justice and racial harmony. But what if we're all racists and don't know it? In my previous blogs on this subject, Objectivity A New Perspective on the Conversation About Race, Parts 1 and 2, I said we're all inherently subjective, and we all have unconscious biases. Studies reveal that most of us had definite entrenched stereotypes about blacks, women, and other social groups by the age of five. Studies confirm that young North American children, both black and white, on average, assign more negative adjectives to the drawings of black faces and more positive adjectives to the drawing of white faces.

As children, we constantly appraised our environment and formed conclusions about our world. If we didn't see black faces in our Saturday morning cartoons, we assumed that black was not as good. If we didn't see women holding positions of power, we assumed that women were less than men. If we went to school and saw few, if any, black children, we assumed that something was wrong with black people. We were just trying to make sense of our world. And no matter how progressive our parents were, as soon as we walked out the door, we had to confront peer pressure, the media, and the social structure that promulgated these stereotypes. As a result, many of us have unconscious biases that we are simply not aware of hard-wired into our brain's neural net.

An ongoing study of implicit bias -- using the Implicit Association Test (IAT) -- being conducted by Harvard Professor Mahzarin Banaji resoundingly confirms this unsettling truth:

"We all use stereotypes all the time, without knowing it. Although many of us think we're not prejudiced toward any group of people, our brain activity tells a different story."

The IAT requires users to rapidly categorize two concepts with an attribute (for example, the concepts "male" and "female" with the attribute "logical"). Easier pairings (faster responses) are interpreted as more strongly associated in memory than more difficult pairings (slower responses). The IAT measures unconscious attitudes about such concepts as race, gender-career, age, sexuality, and weight.

Data from 4.5 million tests reveal that:

  • Implicit biases are pervasive. Over 80% of respondents show implicit negativity toward the elderly compared to the young; 75-80% of self-identified whites and Asians show an implicit preference for racial white over black.
  • People are often unaware of their implicit biases. Ordinary people, including the researchers who direct this project, harbor negative associations in relation to various social groups (i.e., implicit biases), even while honestly (the researchers believe) reporting that they regard themselves as lacking these biases.
  • Implicit biases predict behavior. From simple acts of friendliness and inclusion to more consequential acts, such as the evaluation of work quality, those who are higher in implicit bias have been shown to display greater discrimination.
  • People differ in levels of implicit bias. Implicit biases vary from person to person--for example, as a function of the person's group memberships, the dominance of a person's membership group in society, a person's consciously held attitudes, and the level of bias existing in the immediate environment. This last observation makes clear that implicit attitudes are modified by experience.

As Babson College's first Chief Diversity Officer, I conduct corporate seminars in diversity and inclusion. I use the IAT to help people become aware that they may have biases and to lead them through a process of transforming those biases. The examples below represent common experiences with the test results among executives:

A white man was relieved and proud to learn that the IAT indicated that he had no preference of white over black. He said his father worked for the State Department, and he grew up with children from all over the world. The key point in his experience is that when he was forming associations to make sense of his environment, he didn't conclude that people should be judged based on their skin color or nationality.

A white woman admitted to feeling shame when her tests results revealed a slight preference for whites over blacks. She said she made a conscious effort to expose her children to a diverse group of children because she wants them to learn the value of differences. In spite of her values and her efforts to be unbiased in her actions, she still had an unconscious bias. She said she grew up in an all-white neighborhood and went to a predominately white school. The key point in her experience is that the associations she made were the result of her environment and that as a child she couldn't have drawn a different conclusion. It was important to reassure her and others like her that they should not feel shame for being biased, but they must continue to be vigilantly aware so that their biases don't steer discriminatory behavior.

An African American man bravely admitted that his IAT results showed that he had a preference for white over black. He was shocked, and embarrassed, because he consciously exposed his children to positive models of African Americans, for instance, by buying both black and white Barbie dolls for his daughters. His result clearly demonstrates the power of the media, schools, and TV shows in the development of unconscious prejudices in all people. It was important to reassure him that I have seen many similar responses-- where a person is biased against the group to which he or she belongs: women who sometimes feel conflicted at work because they associate women with family and men with careers; seniors who see themselves and other seniors as less valuable because they have an automatic preference for young over old; and people who are overweight having a preference for thin people--all based on societal mental models.

The latter two examples above, I think, are the most instructive in helping us understand how we can change and become "modern-day marchers for economic justice and racial harmony." Our conscious brain can lead us away from the prejudices of our unconscious minds. Clearly the white woman's conscious values and choices led her away from any unconscious biases she developed growing up in a predominately white environment. Similarly, the African American man, in spite of influences that he may have encountered as a child that led him to become biased against his own group, made a conscious decision to think and act differently.

In order to achieve the Dream, we must all consciously choose to be more objective by overcoming our biases. One key difference between 1963 and 2013 is that now we have the knowledge to do so. In the wake of knowledge transformation takes place.

In my next blog I will write about how to overcome our biases.