The Implications of Implicit Bias

The Implications of Implicit Bias

Explicit biases are well-understood and easily recognized.  Hate speech, burning crosses, racial slurs, sexist language — all draw attention and invite rebuke.  Implicit biases, however, bubble away beneath the surface of conscious thought, unacknowledged and provoking largely involuntary responses, some of which may be miniscule or fleeting but which nonetheless nudge our behavior and influence our decisions.

Because these unconscious attitudes exert such power over our behavior, they have come under academic scrutiny in recent years.  Researchers at Harvard have developed the Implicit Association Test (IAT) which measures our tendency to associate ideas with each other. You might associate “kiwi” with fruit, or you might associate it with “don’t like” : either way, the test measures your tendency to prefer kiwi to other foods, and fruit to other foods.  Your feelings about fruit are fairly innocuous. Far more interesting are the tests that measure our implicit associations between women, men, family, and career — a strong association between men and career may indicate implicit bias toward maleness in the job environment; this could play out in interviews or employee evaluations in ways that we aren’t even aware of.  Equally interesting (or scary, depending on your results) are the IATs dealing with race and whether we associate goodness or badness with a particular race.  It’s not hard to see how these might manifest themselves in a classroom setting, either through discipline, subjective grading practices, identification for special programs like GT or SPED, or simply through the thousands of everyday interactions between a child and a teacher.

Even more astonishing is the finding that what we say we believe about race doesn’t always or even usually align with our implicit biases.  We like to think we are color blind, but the IAT makes it hard to maintain that position.

You can take one of the IATs at the Project Implicit Website.  You do have to provide an email and answer a few questions to take one of the race, gender, or mental health IATs, but the data are anonymous and there is no cost to take the tests.  If you have time, click on the Education tab and go the FAQs, which are a fascinating read.  The more light we can shine on the unconscious reactions we have toward others, the better we can address those reactions in ways that make us better teachers, administrators, evaluators, and human beings.


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