Implicit Bias

What is Implicit Bias and How Has It Been Studied?

Posted July 2020 by John Sherk, B.S.W., B.S. Bible; MDiv.; 10 updates since. Reading time: 8 min. Reading level: Grade 9+. Questions on implicit bias? Email Toni at:

Many people believe that a racist is someone who consciously believes that some races are inherently inferior to others. However, is this the only way in which racial bias manifests itself? What about those who believe all races are equal, yet seem to treat one more favorably than another? What about those who claim to be against racism, but are more comfortable around one group of people than others? Could there be more to issues of race and prejudice besides what you consciously believe? This is what studies on implicit bias seek to explore. This topic and these questions are perennially relevant, so it’s important to find out what input psychology can offer. 

Racial Bias Defined

According to the Kirwan Institute, implicit bias “refers to the attitudes or stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions, and decisions unconsciously. These biases, which encompass both favorable and unfavorable assessments, are activated involuntarily and without an individual’s awareness or intentional control.” Racial bias is a form of implicit bias towards other races.

People often feel that they think, behave, and operate with a great degree of logical consistency. We are rational creatures who can make rational decisions. We tend to believe, our reason can guide our desires and our wills. However, for millennia, philosophers and theologians of all stripes have argued that we are driven by far subtler, hidden, and mysterious motivations. We often find ourselves making decisions or reacting to situations in ways we can’t always rationally justify. From Plato to Augustine, from Freud to Jonathan Haidt, and even Selena Gomez, most of our thoughts, beliefs, and decisions can ultimately be rooted in something pre-cognitive and pre-rational. Whether you call it impulses, desires, affections, or the subconscious, these forces shape who are in ways most of us aren’t comfortable admitting. The adage, “What heart wants the will chooses and the mind justifies.” Or take the Hebrew proverb, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” So, when it comes to racial bias, psychological research aims at trying to access and reveal the biases that exist on that level.

Implicit Bias Research: IAT

We just discussed how a lot of our impulses, desires, or subconscious motivations are not immediately comprehensible. Attempting to explore them on our own can lead to self-deceit. If so, how is it even possible to study implicit bias and quantify results? Finding creative ways to access and assess people’s pre-cognition and pre-rational faculties becomes essential in understanding racial bias.

One group leading the way is Project Implicit out of Harvard University. Along with other extensive research, they also offer free Implicit Association Tests (IAT) online as a way of collecting substantial data. These tests involve the user responding as quickly as possible to stimuli on the screen. For example, in one test, the taker is shown images of Asian American faces, European American faces, foreign landmarks, and American landmarks – one right after the other. As an image appears on the screen, the user has to promptly click a key to identify the object as either “American” or “Foreign.” By requiring the user to respond as quickly as possible, the user isn’t able to engage their frontal or pre-frontal cortex. Rather than having the time to rationally process the information, they have to give their initial gut reaction. Designers of the tests believe this can reveal one’s biases. With the test mentioned above in particular, if a user consistently identifies an Asian-American face as “Foreign,” and European landmarks as “American,” then that user may have some racial bias against Asian-Americans. They may believe Asian Americans are “less American” than European Americans.

Implicit Bias Research: Infants

Third, another way psychologists research implicit bias and racial bias comes through infants. Since infants and toddlers haven’t yet fully developed their rational faculties, they can reveal important information on the role of intuition. Furthermore, many people argue that racism is something learned; it’s not inherent or natural. However, studying racial bias in infants can help reveal whether this belief has any empirical weight.

Several studies have been conducted towards this end, including two at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) at the University of Toronto. In one study, infants associate own-race faces with happy music and other-race faces with sad music. In the other, infants rely more on gaze cues from own-race than other-race adults for learning under uncertainty.

Due to these findings, Dr. Kang Lee, one of the researchers, has said “The results show that race-based bias already exists around the second half of a child’s first year. This challenges the popular view that race-based bias first emerges only during the preschool years.” Dr. Naiqi (Gabriel) Xiao, another researcher, furthers this by saying, “When we consider why someone has a racial bias, we often think of negative experiences he or she may have had with other-race individuals. But, these findings suggest that a race-based bias emerges without experience with other-race individuals.”

Understanding Racial Bias

If it’s true that racial bias lies beneath our rational faculties and develops as early as infancy, what can be done about it? Some people might find these conclusions to be hopelessly upsetting. But if we don’t have an accurate understanding of racial bias, we cannot address it. So what do these findings tell us?

Bias among infants makes sense.

It shouldn’t come as a terrible surprise that infants have a bias towards their own race. The first few months of a person’s life have a deep-seated and long-lasting impact on how one views the world. You learn about trust, safety, family, patterns, and who or what you can depend on. Yet, newborns spend an exorbitant amount of this time only with their parents and family, usually of the same race. An infant being uncomfortable around a person of another race should be as expected as an infant being uncomfortable around an unfamiliar family member. If the infant has learned they can trust and depend on Mom and Dad, and if Mom and Dad are the same race, then of course the infant will prefer that familiarity over something completely new. With that in mind, greater exposure to friends and/or family from other races can help an infant learn that trust, dependency, safety, and patterns towards people of other races. In other words, the bias in an infant is rarely ever animosity, but rather a cautious unfamiliarity. Positive exposure can help different people feel more familiar.

Tribalism is natural.

We mentioned Jonathan Haidt earlier. In his book The Righteous Mind, Haidt discusses how people often divide over religion, politics, ethnic identity, and even sports. Yet, it’s the same things that also create the strongest forms of social cohesion. People of all types and persuasions are more likely to help those who are like them, who are part of the in-group, than they are for people who are completely different. The sense of community and belonging that this creates and cultivates is good. It’s even necessary. It’s fundamentally impossible to form a functional society without some sort of common ground. This same good sense of community can turn evil if it turns the inward bonds outward in animosity towards other groups. In other words, mutual love for the same college football team can create social cohesion, but so can mutual hatred for another team. But the former does not necessitate the latter. Cohesion over common cultural values can be tremendously good, but it doesn’t have to include enmity towards people with other cultural values. Instead, an appreciation and respect of differences can not only add richness within a socially cohesive group, it can even create a new type of social cohesion!

Unconscious bias ≠ unchangeable bias.

Understanding racial bias begins when we acknowledge the tremendous influence of our sub-consciousness. Since we cannot enter a person’s mind and observe its inner workings, change seems daunting, if not impossible. Even more challenging is if racial bias saturates a culture However, this is not the case. To learn, the student has to begin by acknowledging they don’t know. A person who knows little about biology cannot become a world-class biologist if they begin by assuming they know everything about biology. In the same way, if an IAT exposes racial bias in someone, that’s not a reason for condemnation, but an opportunity to learn! The first step is to take that opportunity.

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