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Hillary Clinton raised some eyebrows when, at the first presidential debate, she said, "I think implicit bias is a problem for everyone [...]. I think, unfortunately, too many of us in our great country jump to conclusions about each other.” Opponents challenged that concept, warning that it is part of an encroaching liberal agenda that results in thought policing.
Others cheered her willingness to address an issue that many progressives believe may underlie everything from police shootings to hiring decisions.
But, what is implicit or unconscious bias (also known as implicit cognition), why does it matter, and what does science tell us about it? Implicit bias is defined as the attitudes or stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions, and decisions in an unconscious manner. They are activated involuntarily, without awareness or intentional control and can be either positive or negative. They are the result of mental associations that have formed by the direct and indirect messaging we receive, often about different groups of people. When we are constantly exposed to certain identity groups being paired with certain characteristics, we can begin to automatically and unconsciously associate the identity with the characteristics, whether or not that association aligns with reality.
Implicit bias matters because everyone possesses these unconscious associations, and implicit bias affects our decisions, behaviors, and interactions with others. Although implicit biases can be positive or negative, both can have harmful effects when they influence our decision-making. Understanding implicit bias is also important because of its connection to structural inequality. A significant body of research has established that implicit bias can have broad negative impacts. Addressing implicit bias on multiple levels (e.g., individual and institutional) is critical for achieving social justice goals.
Project Implicit is an ongoing research project into implicit bias that allows you to take tests online to uncover some of your own implicit associations:
So, if it is true that we all have hidden biases, what does that do besides giving us a feeling of guilt or shame? How do we overcome these attitudes? In her TED talk, Verna Myers asks us to "walk boldly toward our biases" (18 minutes):