Implicit Biases: Bad News/Good News

The bad news is that the effects of Implicit Biases look to be augmented by ingroup/outgroup classifications, and the results  go significantly beyond what we normally discuss here.  The good news is that there is even more research on how to mitigate its effects.


Reading  comments on a post at Young Female Scientist, I saw someone describe John Dovidio as a researcher at Yale who works on implicit bias and how to reduce  it and its effects.  A step over to Academic Search Complete took me onto a number of his articles.  Though Dovidio’s work seems centered on racial biasis, it looks like it certainly provides insight into other biases.

Here is one short article by him and others which is about reducing biasis in health care providers.  There are three claims in it that strike me  as particularly important:

1.  In the US, and presumably the UK and elsewhere, race, ethnicity and gender automatically trigger in-group/out-group classifications.  And most unfortunately, “In general, people retain information in a more detailed fashion, remember more positive information, and are more forgiving of behaviors for ingroup compared to outgroup members.”  This seems to me strikingly important, and explains phenomenon I was pretty sure I observed and really didn’t understand:  When he and she both give exciting presentations at conferences and deal with questions very well, he will be remember better and more positively.  The performances may be of equal high merit, but  his may well have a greater positive impact on his career in terms of  further  opportunities being offered to him.  (Duh!)

2.  There may be components to reducing the effects of implicit biases – and indeed  reducing the  biases – which I – and I expect others – had not even thought about.  There are several suggested in the article.  One is related to something we’ve mentioned before; namely, stereotypes get more strongly activated with stress, so people interested in fairly treating someone should work on emotional control.  For women in often non-cooperative/competitive fields like philosophy, this  is bad news.  That is, disagreeing with someone is more likely to get you a dismissive reactions.  Your point may be the same as his later point, but yours may be dismissed as just some girls’  mistake.  (Duh!)

3.  It is not a good idea to stress what bigots they are if you hope to motivate colleagues to better behavior.  And there are  non-obvious reasons for this.  For one thing, that increases their cognitive burden, so they’ll have less to bring to the task of being fair judges.


Perhaps not everyone knows that the effects of race on medical treatment have been discussed a lot recently.  Blacks in general should be concerned about getting less good care, going from adequate pain management to major modes  of appropriate treatment.

17 thoughts on “Implicit Biases: Bad News/Good News

  1. I Sally Haslanger mentioned somewhere that telling people about research into bias can remove the bias. The example was of markers giving lower marks to identical essays if those essays had a name that was likely to be to a woman or someone from an ethnic minority. But if you mentioned the fact that experiments revealed this bias to the markers before they did the marking, the effect disappeared. I think this work was based on similar stuff on th effects of watching pornography on judgements about responsibility in various rape scenarios (i.e. people were more likely to say the woman wanted sex — despite protestations to the contrary — after watching pornography; but if participants were made aware of that before being asked for their judgements, the effect disappeared).

    Of course, this isn’t fail safe. Put someone in front of a researcher and tell them, effectively, that men endorse rape after watching porn and they are more likely to give what they think is the “right” answer. So we can’t infer that their real judgements have actually changed. But even if that is the case, we could hope that after making the judgements often enough — even if for the wrong reasons — they’ll eventually make them for the right ones.

  2. Agree. The big problem is that the public, including colleagues and students, doesn’t believe that implicit bias exists. The few who’ve even heard of it are skeptical, think it’s just politically correct clap-trap and don’t know how well-documented it is. I intend to include a discussion of implicit bias in the “critical reasoning” part of my baby logic course and would welcome any suggestions for suitable, accessible readings.

  3. HEB, one of the best resources is Virginia Valian; some chapters from her book Why So Slow might be good. She is an extremely clear writer. In this post Jender refers to Haslanger’s excellent paper, though I don’t know that you want to give intro level students such grim newsl Hanlanger’s paper probably has good resourcesl

    You might think of looking at the paper I linked to in the present post, and put it together with some articles about disparities in health care. There are also the implicit attitude tests on the web through Harvard. Jender links at the end of her article to something of mine on those tests. I think you may find them also just by googling on “IAT” and harvard.

    Matthew, do you have the reference for the remark you’re think of? It really goes against just about everything that I’ve read about implicit biases, which consistently are characterized as deep seated dispositions. It might be that there’s a very short term effect, but I doubt there’s more. Still, I’d love to see where she said something about it.

  4. Thanks! I’ve read Why So Slow and it’s very good. I’ll have a look at the other stuff–I like online material that can be linked to the class website. I’m mainly interested in discrimination in employment, particularly for the kinds of jobs to which most of my students aspire rather than academic jobs and am not averse to giving them grim news.

  5. I thought the research on bias correction was in Haslanger’s papers, but I was wrong. If I remember correctly, it’s in Jenny Saul’s book, Feminism: Issues & Arguments. I don’t have a copy with me and I can’t find any online access, so I can’t get the reference unfortunately.

    If I remember the next time I’m in the library I’ll try to track down the reference and let you know.

  6. Hi,

    I did discuss the work on porn in my book, but nothing on implicit bias. The studies I discussed, however, were about de-briefings after watching the porn. These were found to totally remove the negative effects of the porn viewing even several months later.

  7. I touch briefly on “the Linda Problem” for critical reasoning and in applied ethics classes talk about discrimination and affirmative action. About half of the students are business majors, with a dangerous little learning in economics. They’re convinced that the market works, that without interference the system is a fair meritocracy since discrimination is inefficient. They just don’t have the empirical facts. They also assume that if you suggest women are getting a raw deal with it comes to employment related issues you’re a man-hating feminist bitch, claiming that men are putting women down. That’s why I need stuff on implicit bias which, I believe, is the chief source of the raw deal.

  8. They’re convinced that the market works, that without interference the system is a fair meritocracy since discrimination is inefficient.

    Sounds like the market has acquired .. consciousness!

  9. Actually, I think we need to bring it to people’s attention that when they automatically attribute new representations of ideas as being a “girl’s mistake” or — more often, and more implicitly — as being a women’s infingement against her duty to simply nurture, they are regressing to an early childhood stage where daddy was always the authority (independent of the content of his views) and mummy was always the reliable prime nurturer. It’s just a recollection of the pre-oedipal situation that is represented in our minds by these primordial archetypes. But just because they have a strong emotional appeal and ring of truth about them, doesn’t mean that they represent reality in the present moment, when adults have come together.

  10. H E Baber: you probably already use this, but I thought I’d mention the Implicit Association Test, which is online and easy to take ( Students can take it privately and look at the hard evidence of implict biases in all of us.

    The article on health-care providers made me think about how I approach teaching. I was startled by their statement that empathy decreases during medical training, and later during one’s career. I think the same thing is happening to me the longer I teach. I start to see the students as “students” – members of this homogenous group – rather than as individuals. I’m much less empathetic now when they request accommodations because a family member died, or when they cry over a low grade. I’m immediately suspicious of their motives. Add that to the biases I’m sure I already have about race, class, and gender, and there’s good reason to be worried about my fairness to students. I think I’ll try some of the strategies mentioned in the article.

  11. Thanks! I’ve taken it myself at that site, and am going to link it to my class website where I have a variety of online test yourself goodies.

    I’m going to be googling around today as I prepare for fall classes. What I really want is something on how implicit bias figures in employment decisions, in hiring, promotion, offers of on the job training and the like. The employment issue seems to me by far the most important one since the job you do not only determines economic status–it concerns how miserable you are for a good chunk of your working hours. Also I’d argue that while causation goes both ways it’s overwhelmingly the role women occupy (or don’t occupy) in the labor force that determines their role in the home and in all male-female relations rather then vice versa. Fix discrimination and sex segregation in the labor market and most of women’s problems will be solved.

    There’s interesting literature in econ on bargaining models as applied to the family. The gist of it is the obvious: if women have decent options in the labor market they have bargaining chips in the family and in other male-female relationships. Women don’t accept less desirable jobs or invest less in work because they want to spend more time on child care or other domestic activities, or because they care more about “relationships”: we invest in relationships and devote more time to child care etc because most of us can’t get good jobs and investment in work doesn’t pay off for most of us.

  12. HEB: There is an article by Valian on the web that summarizes her arguments. She also has a web site that does have facts about employment.

    Amy: I’m impressed that you decide to work on yourself first!

    Jennifer: Virginian Valian (mentioned in other comments here) has a considerably different explanation of the origins of the biases, and it has a lot of empirical support. Do have a look; in many ways, it is a simpler hypothesis that requires much less in the way of theoretical commitment.

  13. Beautiful–Thanks! I think the article would be this. I’m still googling around, mainly looking for implicit bias in employment not for academic or other more or less elite jobs, but for the jobs most people do–for office park drone jobs, sales jobs, jobs in supermarkets, etc. that are more relevant to students.

  14. JenniferArmstrong, you might instead consider instituting a dialogue on the issues with people like Valian. I’d expect a lot of us could benefit from such a discussion.

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