Some of my best friends are …

Some of my best friends are …

…. unconsciously biased against certain social groups (e.g., Women in Science; African-Americans). And I am, too.

At least, that’s the claim by three psychologists from Harvard University, the University of Virginia, and the University of Washington. These psychologists study a phenomenon known as “implicit association.”

Here, for example, are two of the findings from these studies:

• People are often unaware of their implicit biases. Ordinary people, including the researchers who direct this project, are found to harbor negative associations in relation to various social groups (i.e., implicit biases) even while honestly (the researchers believe) reporting that they regard themselves as lacking these biases.

• Implicit biases predict behavior. From simple acts of friendliness and inclusion to more consequential acts such as the evaluation of work quality, those who are higher in implicit bias have been shown to display greater discrimination. The published scientific evidence is rapidly accumulating.

If these findings are valid, they have profound implications for the way we make career decisions for ourselves and for others. The findings offer support to the idea that a slight skewing of many minor and major decisions (by interviewers, reviewers, colleagues, etc.) gradually add up, over time, to a measurable decrease in the number of women and under-represented minorities in the scientific workforce. (See, for example, Virginia Valian’s book, Why So Slow? The Advancement of Women.)

As a member of the “enlightened” generation that came of age in the 1970s, I find this hypothesis disturbing and these findings problematic. After all, I’m objective, fair-minded, sophisticated, sensitive, rational, and data-driven. Right?

Before I accept the notion that I’m unwittingly harboring sexist. racist, or ageist biases, I’d like to see some evidence, please. Show me the data.

“Take this test,” the researchers respond, inviting me to the Project Implicit website.

So I take the tests.

Guess what? The tests find:

• “Your data suggest a slight association of Male with Science and Female with Liberal Arts compared to Female with Science and Male with Liberal Arts.”

• “Your data suggest a strong automatic preference for European American compared to African American.”

I’m not proud of the results, and I decide not to take any more tests right now. I don’t really want to take more tests and then be told about my biases in other areas (including weight, religion, age, Arab-Muslim, etc). Besides, the tests require concentration and time (actually only about 10 minutes per test).

Do I find my results distressing?
— Yes

Do I believe the validity of the test?
— Maybe. I’m not a psychologist, and I haven’t studied the peer-reviewed literature on this topic. Is there a scientific consensus on this subject?

Does it make me think?
— Absolutely.

Does it make you think?

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Published in: on February 21, 2009 at 6:49 am  Comments (1)  

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  1. […] on “Implicit Bias” My post from earlier today, “Some of my best friends are …,” discusses my personal experience with the idea of unconscious bias. The same topic is […]


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