When we think of our dealings with other people, we can tell ourselves that we are generous, understanding, even-handed, fair. But are we really?
Reverend Jesse Jackson once told an audience, “There is nothing more painful to me at this stage in my life than to walk down the street and hear footsteps and start thinking about robbery. . .Then look around and see somebody white and feel relieved.” Even the famous civil rights leader could not escape the difficult but pervasive belief that a white man was less threatening than a black man.
What Jackson felt is called “implicit bias,” attitudes or stereotypes that unconsciously affect our understanding, actions, and decisions—how we see the world, and especially how we see people. Implicit bias is a universal phenomenon, cutting across gender, race, age, and status. These attitudes, what psychologists call “automatic preferences,” unknown to our conscious selves, become a part of the way we treat strangers, hire employees, live in neighborhoods, or even when we ask for help.
Serious research on the subject is barely two decades old. A Harvard University group called Project Implicit has developed methods of testing people for these unconscious biases without asking them outright what they think. The project tools are called Implicit Association Tests (IAT), and more than 15 million people have taken some or all of them. The tests ask subjects to associate good and bad words with different categories (disabled, Muslim, gay, old, men, women, white, black, and others) and measure response time. The results claim to show “automatic” preferences towards one group over another.
This writer took the 14 tests on the Project Implicit website. In each test—after questions about birthdate, nationality, gender, race, and geographical location—a series of symbols, words, and pictures on the screens are to be sorted into “good” or “bad” groups. Response speed was part of the calculation. Subjects were then asked about their religious and political leanings. The result of each test stated: “Your data suggest a (no, slight, moderate, strong) automatic preference for,” for example, Bill Clinton over Donald Trump. At the end, the subject is asked how much (no, slight, moderate, strong) of a surprise the result was.
At first, not much. The data suggested that I showed no automatic preference for white Americans over Native Americans, no preference for Arab Muslims over other people, a slight association of American with European American, foreign with Asian American, and straight people over gay people. I showed a moderate association of male with career and female with family, and a moderate preference for Christianity over Judaism, thin people over fat people, an association of male with science and female with liberal arts, and a slight preference for light-skinned people over dark-skinned people. I saw some issues I should think about a little harder, but the results seemed about normal for a white male senior citizen.
Then came the result of the one test I was sure I had aced: Weapons – Harmless Objects. “Your data suggest a strong automatic association for harmless objects with white Americans and weapons with black Americans.” My first thought was, is this what I really feel? Do I watch too much television? Where is this coming from?
Studies have shown that children as young as three begin to acquire prejudicial terms and biases. As they grow older, they form bonds with their own ethnic groups and form negative feelings about other groups. An adult with such prejudices may be unwilling to admit them to others, but carries them consciously. The difference between being unwilling and unable is the difference between purposely hiding something from someone and unknowingly hiding something from oneself.
So I had to ask myself: What can I do about an implicit preference that I don’t want? Do I harbor prejudices that seem contradictory to what I consciously believe? The IAT creators say not necessarily, but implicit bias can predict behavior. If I want to act in ways that I think reflect my values, I need to be aware of the influence of those hidden biases. It’s not known whether implicit biases can be eliminated, or even reduced, so the focus should be on strategies that deny implicit biases the chance to work. If I find an implicit preference for older people, I might try becoming friendlier to young people; I should find ways to reduce gender, race, and other factors when evaluating people I encounter; and I should go out of my way to look for positive portrayals of groups other than my own.
Project Implicit researchers say that implicit preferences for majority groups are common because the long history of racial discrimination and the ways in which black people are portrayed in culture and the media have led to strong negative associations. We may profess our equality out loud, and point to progress everywhere, but we are yet to reckon with our inner biases.