Unconscious bias, also known as “implicit bias,” is the proposition that people (usually white people) have an unrealized degree of bias against people of other races or genders, and it is this unconscious bigotry that contributes to racism and sexism and their harmful effects.
One’s unconscious bias (UB) is measured via an implicit association test (IAT), characterized by Wikipedia as
“a controversial assessment intended to detect subconscious associations between mental representations of objects (concepts) in memory. Its best-known application is the assessment of implicit stereotypes held by test subjects, such as associations between particular racial categories and stereotypes about those groups.”
Both UB and IATs are controversial ideas for several reasons; I’ll give just a few:
1.) If you are biased or bigoted, some say, it’s unlikely that it’s unconscious. (NOTE: See my comment below, I am willing to believe that some people are biased but absolutely have no awareness of it.)
2.) Most important, IATs, which supposedly measure your UB and then are used to promote implicit bias training is a scheme that doesn’t seem to work. While taking such a test may make you chastened or feel better temporarily, tests have shown that they have virtually no effect on either longer term bias or, more important, how you treat people who have been subjects of bigotry. In fact, the tests have been said to increase bias by alienating people by telling some of them that they’re bigots.
3.) The results are easy to fake. I took one some time ago, and while the results showed I was not prejudiced against blacks, and I tried to answer quickly and honestly, upon reviewing the test I could see that certain answers would either raise or lower your bigotry score.
You can see further critiques of these concepts and the tests here and here, while can find a list of articles critical of IATs and the idea of IB here. Wikipedia also lists the problems in a section about “criticism and controversy” of IATs.
This is not meant to suggest, of course, that people aren’t biased, nor that organizations shouldn’t take steps to reduce bias and discrimination. Of course they should. It’s just that the evidence for the IATs and UB training actually doing anything to reduce bias is thin and unconvincing. Both the Guardian and Scientific American articles suggest more sustained, complex, and permanent ways to reduce bias in the workplace.
But of course when people perceive a problem, or manufacture one, like “the need to train people out of unconscious bias”, people come forward to profit, and now there is an industry of administering IATs to ferret out UB, followed by training to root out your UB.
Here’s one example sent by a reader (click on the screenshot to read). It’s part of a website advertising a firm that ferrets out bias and gives (paid) training to many professional scientific societies and organizations.
The title is unfortunate:
The unfortunate comparison from the head of the organization:
I love the “boots and sandals” analogy for understanding how to respond when called on your privilege. (If you don’t know about this, check it out here.)
It inspired me to come up with my own analogy that I’ve found useful in talking about unconscious biases.
Unconscious biases are like armpits.
- Everyone has them.
- It is not your fault that you have them.
- Most of the time you are not aware of them.
- Sometimes other people might point out to you that your armpits are offensive.
- When that happens, it is your responsibility to clean them up.
The difference, of course, is that we know that armpits really exist.
The rationale goes on, using an evolutionary analogy asserting that we’re evolved to be biased. Well, we might have evolved to be xenophobic, but whether this leads to racism today is questionable. If this were the case, we’d be fearful and bigoted against people of every ethnic group, while bias is said to apply mostly to whites and their attitudes towards blacks and Hispanics. But there may be an element of tribalism that remains in our genomes. But even if this is the case, that doesn’t show that the biases are unconscious nor that the kind of testing and training that so many people are merchandising eliminate this atavistic “xenophobia”. In fact, they don’t seem to be:
Being good at pattern recognition is a valuable survival skill. When our ancestors confronted a large predator – a saber-toothed tiger, say – an individual’s chance of survival was heightened if they did not have to stand there thinking, “Hmmm, it’s big and furry and has stripes and these really big teeth and enormous claws and maybe I should consider leaving the scene. . . .” Those who recognized in an instant that the thing approaching them was a threat lived to produce the folks who produced us. Our brains are so good a this, we recognize patterns even where there are none to be found – just ask the people who find images of Elvis or Jesus or Kurt Cobain seared into their breakfast toast.
Preference for what is familiar is another survival skill. When it comes to avoiding predators, poisons, and other dangers, sticking with what you know has advantages. As you would imagine, it definitely gets in the way of making any diverse group of people truly inclusive. The flip side of preferring the familiar is a reaction ranging from mild discomfort to fear in the face of the unfamiliar. We prefer what we know well, even when sticking with the familiar doesn’t get us what we say we want, or what will bring us happiness. This is how life coaches can make a living nudging people out of their “comfort zones” to make real changes in their lives.
Read the Guardian and Sci. Am. articles to look at some better fixes for bigotry.
UPDATE: A friend read this and told me I lack a “conclusion.” I thought it was implicit in what I wrote, but perhaps it’s not. The most important lesson is to not automatically buy into implicit association tests as a measure of your bias, and especially not to fall for companies who try to sell you or your scientific organization “training” and “meeting monitors” based on the concept of pervasive implicit bias.
Too many scientific societies are now paying lots of money for this kind of training and even hiring people to walk around at meetings trying to sniff out offensive statements and interactions. Societies of course do need a procedure for investigating malfeasance, but now they are acting like a bunch of helicopter parents who must monitor the interaction of full-grown scientists assumed to be ridden with sexism and racism.