7 Strategies to Address Implicit Bias

Implicit bias is action-oriented, and influences our judgment and behaviors as it relates to those groups considered, ‘non-dominant’. They include African-Americans, Asians, Muslims and Latinx- the social groups whose heritages aren’t traditionally Caucasian.

We address biases about these groups-‘others’- by bringing to a conscious level our core beliefs about these groups. Many of these beliefs are based upon negative stereotypes, and continue to persist by minimal exposure to individuals within those groups.

It is a lack of exposure and experience with these groups that allow individuals to act in ways that are discriminatory and culturally and individually disrespectful, though often unintentionally.

Implicit bias represents the absence of broad cultural awareness and sensitivity. In public education settings, roughly 77% of teaching staff are white, and the student population is increasingly the ‘other. While teachers may have the best of intentions for their students, these biases influence their ability to deliver equitable and quality education experiences.

Black and brown students are disciplined more harshly than their white counterparts for the same or similar ‘offenses’. These children’s behaviors are considered disruptive more often than not, and they are identified as special needs learners at greater numbers than are white children. Implicit bias at work!

The absence of any historical reference or experience that educators possess, regarding these groups, WILL and DOES negatively impact student learning performance and achievement outcomes. The lack of exposure to these groups makes it difficult to establish meaningful relationships with students and establish partnerships with students’ families.

Family engagement is critical to student success, behaviors, attendance, and the reinforcement of classroom learning at home. Teachers are now being called upon to better understand the term ‘implicit bias’ and the impact it has on pedagogical competencies.

It remains debatable as to the theoretical origins of bias. Is it truly unconscious, or are we unwilling to face and acknowledge the biases we possess, though conscious? In principle, simple biases are not bad, if they do not impact any life except one’s own.

Unfortunately, implicit racial/cultural biases are prejudices we act on in relation to others, as opposed to mere personal preferences.

If that preference applies to a work environment, then it is safe to assume that there will be an avoidance to working effectively with people from other social groups. Likewise, in the classroom. This breeds discrimination and persistent negative stereotyping. Implicit becomes explicit when actions, decisions and determinations are made with purposeful intent by individuals with fully conscious awareness and acknowledgement of their core beliefs.

When we stick to the familiar, we miss opportunities to flourish from the benefits of broad social exposure and experiences. At first, with little to no reference, there is uncertainty, which may underlie a fear-a fear of going outside of one’s comfort zone…the familiar. After a period of time, that fear becomes better explained to one’s self or others as a justified avoidance due to broadly attributed negative traits of the other. This produces an inexcusable excuse.

Biases prevent discovery and the identification of the positives which lie beyond. We find it more difficult to relate to one another, and more walls are manufactured. If one’s biases are shared with and by others, and if there is a degree of power and influence among you, society begins to design systems and policies and practices which are congruent with that bias.

Where systems, policies and programs have been framed by a group with biased intent, individual group members’ mindsets align. Moreover, when individuals within newer, updated systems, conceived in the same framework, perform required duties, unintentionally, the most liberal-minded individual will be called to act from within that biased framework.This is especially detrimental and counter-intuitive to equity and social justice.

Many research-based strategies are currently available for regulating implicit biases. One way to class these strategies is in terms of those that purport to change the apparent associations /assumptions or what I label, ‘immaculate perceptions’ underlying implicit biases, compared with those that purport to leave implicit associations intact but enable one to control the effects of biases on judgment and behavior.

Change-based interventions

Intergroup contact (Aberson et al. 2008; Dasgupta & Rivera 2008; Anderson 2010 for discussion): long studied for its effects on explicit prejudice (e.g., Allport 1954; Pettigrew & Tropp 2006), interaction between members of different social groups appears to diminish implicit bias under some moderating conditions (e.g., equal status interaction) and not under others.

Approach training (Kawakami et al. 2007, 2008; Phills et al. 2011): participants repeatedly “negate” stereotypes and “affirm” counter-stereotypes by pressing a button labeled “NO!” when they see stereotype-consistent images (e.g., of a black face paired with the word “athletic”) or “YES!” when they see stereotype-inconsistent images (e.g., of a white face paired with the word “athletic”). Other experimental scenarios have had participants push a joystick away from themselves to “negate” stereotypes and pull the joystick toward themselves to “affirm” counter-stereotypes.

Evaluative conditioning (Olson & Fazio 2006; De Houwer 2011): a widely used technique whereby an attitude object (e.g., a picture of a black face) is paired with another valenced[value associated with a stimulus- from negative to positive] attitude object (e.g., the word “brilliant”), which shifts the valence of the first object in the direction of the second.

Counter-stereotype exposure (Blair et al. 2001; Dasgupta & Greenwald 2001): increasing individuals’ exposure to images, film clips, or even mental imagery depicting members of stigmatized groups acting in stereotype-discordant ways (e.g., images of female scientists).

Control-based interventions

Implementation intentions (Gollwitzer & Sheeran 2006; Stewart & Payne 2008; Mendoza et al. 2010; Webb et al. 2012): “if-then” plans that specify a goal-directed response that an individual plans to perform on encountering an anticipated cue. For example, in a “Shooter Bias” test, where participants are given the goal to “shoot” all and only those individuals shown holding guns in a computer simulation, participants may be asked to adopt the plan, “if I see a black face, I will think ‘safe!’”

“Cues for control” (Monteith 1993; Monteith et al. 2002): techniques for noticing prejudiced responses, in particular the affective discomfort caused by the inconsistency of those responses with participants’ egalitarian goals.

Priming goals, moods, and motivations (Huntsinger et al. 2010; Moskowitz & Li 2011; Mann & Kawakami 2012): priming egalitarian goals, multicultural ideologies, or particular moods can lower scores of prejudice on implicit measures.

The bulk of these interventions, in my opinion, are at high risk for being ineffective and/or non-sustainable without an integrated component that addresses culture-one’s own and others. When there is implicit bias pertaining to race, it is important to acquire information and facts relative to individual and group cultural backgrounds. We must address history and social structures and systems and their designs as they may or may not influence or perpetuate bias and inequity.

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What is it that keeps us apart in a land so diversely populated? A global world demands teaching or parenting from within a global framework. As social and racial groups remain separated, yet increasing in physical proximity, formal education is the best avenue to cultivate a reality which mimics the world in which we say we wish to live, work and learn. The most sure strategy to mitigate the biases which create inequity and discord is as soon as children enter the classroom.

The biggest challenge to making this change, is the requirement of an altered educator mindset. That, too, begins in a classroom, boardroom, community room, or living room. Mindsets have to change before and in order that systems may change. Broader perspectives emerge from information, exposure and experiences.

Explicit bias and outright prejudice are persistent and, in some places, pervasive. It is, however, unclear who, if anyone, thinks that implicit bias is more important than explicit bias. Philosophers in particular have been interested in implicit bias because, despite the persistence and pervasiveness of explicit bias, there are many people—presumably many of you—who aim to think and act in unprejudiced ways, and yet are susceptible to the kinds of biased behavior researchers have studied.

This also may contribute to the mainstream complacence toward the very outrageous instances of bigotry and racism we see all too often in modern society. Implicit bias may also contribute causally to explicit bias, particularly in environments suffused with prejudiced norms.

Arguably the most common understanding is that “implicit” means “unconscious.” But whatever is assessed by implicit measures is arguably not unconscious. Some structuralists argue that we do nothing but detract from addressing the massive segregation and divisiveness in the U.S., by focusing on the psychology of bias. Our focus should be on changing the socio-political structures themselves. One’s mental state should not be necessary to understand or explain social injustice.

What happens in individual’s minds is the product of social inequity rather than an explanation for them.  Demographic research makes clear that psychological prejudice is a key driver of (for example) economic inequality and inequities in the criminal justice system (Center for Policing Equity 2016). More broadly, no matter how autonomously certain social structures operate, people must choose to accept or reject those structures, to vote for politicians who speak for or against them, and so on. How people assess these options is at least in part a psychological question.

We may choose to identify ways in which psychological biases (whether implicit or explicit) might be key contributors to social-structural phenomena. For example, structuralists sometimes point to the drug laws and sentencing guidelines that contribute to the mass incarceration of black men in this country as examples of systemic biases.

Sometimes, however, when these laws and policies change, discrimination persists. While arrests have declined for all racial groups in states that have decriminalized marijuana, black people continue to be arrested for marijuana-related offenses at a rate of about 10 times that of white people (Drug Policy Alliance 2018). This suggests that psychological biases (belonging to officers, policy makers, or voters) are an ever-present part of systemic inequity. 

Additional research must be conducted, such as: research on implicit bias in legal practices and in medicine, on the development of implicit bias in children, on implicit inter- group bias toward non-black racial minorities, such as Asians and Latinx, and cross-cultural research on implicit bias in non-Western countries.

On changing or controlling implicit bias, arguably the most pressing question, is about the durability of psychological interventions once individuals leave the lab/ learning environment. How long will shifts in biased responding last? Will individuals inevitably “relearn” their biases?

Can shifts in individuals’ attitudes create environments that provoke more egalitarian behaviors in others? Moreover, what has (or has not) changed in people’s feelings, judgments, and actions now that research on implicit bias has received considerable public attention?


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