This post was originally published at Restructure!
People who consider themselves fully rational individuals are ignorant about basic psychology and their own minds.
It is easy for white men in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields to perceive themselves as more rational than other groups, because our society associates rationality with whites, men, and STEM professionals. When white men in STEM fields believe in this stereotype, they might assume that bias is more common in non-white people, women, and people in the arts, humanities, and social sciences. After all, these other groups seem to want to discuss bias more often, and unexamined associative “reasoning” would link bias to those who bring up the topic of bias. Under logical scrutiny, however, it does not follow that the act of thinking about bias makes one more biased.
A basic tenet of contemporary psychology is that mental activity can be unconscious. Unconscious simply refers to any mental activity that is “not conscious”, and it is not equivalent to the unscientific New Age concept of the Subconscious. A good example of unconscious mental activity interfering with conscious intentions is the Stroop effect (right). If you try to name the colours of the colour words aloud, the first set of colours will be easier to name than the second set of colours, because you unconsciously read the words. This means that you do not have full control over your thoughts and behaviour, and your willpower or logical reasoning cannot overcome the unconscious cultural bias of being able to read in English. Of course, there are other unconscious cultural biases aside from English literacy bias.
If you are a white person and you take Project ImplicitÂ®’s Race IAT (Implicit Association Test), you will probably discover that you implicitly/unconsciously prefer white faces to black faces, despite your explicit/conscious belief that white and black people are equal. (The test is called Race IAT, and it is located in a random position in the list of IATs.) If you are black, your results are less predictable, but on average, as many black people have a pro-white bias as a pro-black bias.
Like all psychology experiments, the IAT expects people to make mistakes. However, if you mistakenly associate black faces with negative words more than you mistakenly associate white faces with negative words, then it means you have an anti-black bias. Similarly, if you mistakenly associate white faces with positive words more than black faces with positive words, then you have a pro-white bias. Reaction times are another indicator of bias, e.g., if you are faster associating white faces with positive words than black faces with positive words, then you have a pro-white bias.
If you take the Gender-Science IAT, you will probably discover that you cannot help but associate women with humanities and men with science, despite conscious efforts to respond in an unbiased way. (Again, the test’s position in the list of IATs is randomized.)
The scientists who created Project ImplicitÂ® did not “invent” the concept of implicit bias to advance some liberal agenda, as the explicit-versus-implicit or conscious-versus-unconscious distinction in psychology is not limited to social stereotypes. Evidence of unconscious or implicit bias abounds in psychology literature, and the social application is only a tiny slice of the studies done on unconscious/implicit bias. Similarly, the scientists are not trying to suggest that racism, sexism, and other types of discrimination are innate. The scientists are simply bringing the practical and social applications of implicit bias to the public’s attention. Project ImplicitÂ® is only the socially-relevant tip of the iceberg of implicit bias research. Thus, it is silly to accuse the scientists of conjuring up the idea of “implicit bias” for the sole purpose of proving some political point.
A social implication of the existence of implicit bias is that people’s assurances that they are “not biased” do not prove that they are unbiased. Racial discrimination, gender discrimination, and other types of discrimination can occur without people’s conscious knowledge. A white interviewer might perceive a black interviewee as unfriendly, without realizing that the negative associations come from the white interviewer’s unconscious attitudes towards blackness. A male software developer might assume that his female peer is less competent in coding and better at documentation or communication, simply because of his unconscious attitudes towards gender and skill type. A person who says, “I don’t see any discrimination at my workplace,” is not even providing a single data point towards proving lack of discrimination. If you are biased, you might not be aware of it. Your conscious attitudes towards racial and gender equality are not sufficient to show that you are unbiased.
The realization that you may have biases that you are unaware of, and that you are not as rational and objective as you assumed, can be frightening and disorienting. However, you can reduce bias by becoming aware of implicit bias within yourself and accepting that implicit bias exists in our society. This means that you should no longer maintain naÃ¯ve notions that you live in a meritocracy; that you are racially “colorblind”; that racism comes from only those who self-identify as racists; that you can ignore somebody’s race and gender when you are evaluating them; or that white men in STEM fields are the last people who should worry about being biased. Ignoring bias or pretending it does not exist does not make it go away. Ignorance of bias does not indicate intellectual purity.