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Your Mind’s Secret Skew: Exploring Implicit Bias

  • Posted by: Ellen Kandell


I hope you’ve had a wonderful summer, and found some time to relax with your friends or family in the sun and heat. As we turn the corner into autumn, it’s time to recalibrate to new rhythms and schedules, and maybe new projects, ideas, or colleagues.

Perhaps this shift is a good time to reflect for a moment and consider the hidden biases that we all carry with us in our interactions with the people we encounter in our lives. Harvard research from the past decade has revealed that the vast majority of us see people through lenses of prejudice or bias that we don’t consciously recognize. Even more befuddling, it appears most of us can’t necessarily predict our own biases when we try. This newsletter explores the concept of implicit bias, what we can do to counteract it, and what it means for mediation.


Many of us are aware of the destructive patterns of bias and discrimination that we have inherited from earlier configurations of this society. And on a broad spectrum, many of us have every genuine intention of disengaging from those destructive behaviors and building an increasingly egalitarian world. But in their book Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People, Mahzarin Banaji of Harvard and Anthony Greenwald of the University of Washington are telling us that those good intentions may not be enough. Not enough, anyway, to upset the staying power of this persistent hangover of institutionalized discrimination and prejudice that seems to plague our society. That, it seems, will take some more intentional effort.

What is Implicit Bias?

The first aspect of “implicit bias” to understand is that it does not refer to overt, conscious, or deliberate forms of discrimination. We do not choose our implicit biases nor necessarily choose consciously to act on them, and therefore as the title of Banaji and Greenwald’s book suggests, it’s entirely defensible that a “good person” possesses them. In fact, bias in itself is not evil; on the contrary, it stems from basic survival instinct, but becomes distorted and destructive in our social realities. When it comes to implicit bias, we only begin to have a choice when we become aware and admit to ourselves that we might have them. Then we can choose the challenge of exploring our own “blindspots,” and work on choosing which kinds of bias we want to use, and which kinds we want to leave behind.

After all, Banaji, herself a woman born in India, found it disturbing when she first took an implicit bias test and found herself struggling to link female names with work and career oriented words as quickly and easily as she linked male names. “I thought to myself: Something is wrong with this damned test,” she told Katie Koch of the Harvard Gazette. As Annie Murphy Paul writes in Psychology Today, “We have met the enemy of equality, and the enemy is us.”

Implicit biases manifest themselves in micro-decisions we make everyday. Initially these unconscious tendencies might seem benign in comparison to our conscious thought processes, but statistically they appear to express themselves with striking consequence. Take a look at these statistics from the diversity consulting firm Cook Ross:

“Less than 15% of American men are over six foot tall, yet almost 60% of corporate CEOs are over six foot tall. Less than 4% of American men are over six foot, two inches tall, yet more than 36% of corporate CEOs are over six foot, two inches tall…In fact, when corrected for age and gender, an inch of height is worth approximately $789 per year in salary!”

Height and gender are only two of many variables we need to be aware of when it comes to our implicit biases. Others include race, ethnicity, weight, sexual orientation, language/accent, and looks in comparison to normative beauty standards.

Where do our blindspots come from?

Why do tall men end up as CEO’s? It seems a silly notion at first. As Cook Ross writes in their¬† publication on unconscious bias, “It seems not only unfair, but patently absurd to choose a CEO because of height, just like it is unfair and absurd to give employees lower performance evaluations solely because they are overweight. Or to prescribe medical procedures to people more often because of their race. Or to treat the same people different ways because of their clothing. Or even to call on boys more often than girls when they raise their hands in school. And yet, all of these things continuously happen, and they are but a small sampling of the hundreds of ways we make decisions every day in favor of one group, and to the detriment of others, without even realizing we’re doing it.”

No one knows exactly how or why implicit biases form, but researchers suggest a number of different origins. As Murphy writes, “Much of what enters our consciousness, of course, comes from the culture around us.” Messages around us – even if we feel consciously critical of them – can influence our unconscious responses. And we are bombarded with advertisements and cultural messages every day that tell us what it looks like to be respectable or dangerous, smart or successful. Many cultural messages reinforce prejudicial ideas. An implicit bias may also take root from an isolated experience that the individual has had, especially if it reaffirms a broader stereotype.

Project Implicit and the Seeing Blind

Greenwald and Banaji spent decades trying to perfect survey tools for measuring implicit bias, and they started Project Implicit in 1998 as a way to begin gathering data from the public. Today the site hosts three different categories of Implicit Association Tests (IAT), which anyone can use to explore their own implicit biases.

Though their ideas initially caused controversy in research communities, Banaji and Greenwald’s work on implicit bias is no longer much contested in the psychology world. The recent book release, however, came as a response to inquiries from a whole slew of people in the private sector who realized that implicit biases could have serious consequences in their fields. The book is meant to reach out to communities outside of academia, and provide tools for readers to explore and dismantle entrenched implicit biases.

Implicit Biases and Mediation

As a mediator, the notion of implicit bias has serious consequences. I am certainly committed to exploring what my own implicit biases might be, considering that they could be detrimental to my position as a neutral third party in a dispute. It’s terribly important for professionals who consider themselves to have a reflective, impartial view – whether in dispute resolution, facilitation, or any leadership position – to be aware of the function of implicit bias, and willing to unwrap how they might be harboring or expressing their own.

Ellen F. Kandell is a certified professional mediator and attorney with over 30 years of public and private sector experience. She provides mediation, group facilitation and training to diverse, national clients. Get in touch with her via email, LinkedIn, Twitter, or give her a call at 301-588-5390.

Author: Ellen Kandell

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