Let’s Reflect: How to Explore Personal Bias

Perception is a fundamental factor in decision making. The lens in which we live our lives influences every choice, including the choice of inaction. Decisions are grounded in the concept known as implicit bias which are attitudes or stereotypes that impact a person’s perspective and actions (FitzGerald, Martin, Berner, & Hurst, 2019). Life experiences shape these implicit associations. Therefore, as a white young woman writing this blog, it is crucial to acknowledge my innate privilege in society which factors into how I conduct research, interact with others and view the world. The goal is not to become impartial, since mental constructs are not innately bad. However, by defining implicit bias, learning about its effects as well as ways to analyze it, there is an opportunity to be proactive in mindfulness and growth.

Seeing Life Through Rose-Colored Glasses

When directly asked a question about a certain topic, it is common for people to choose the perceived “best version” of themselves. It happens all the time with New Year’s resolutions. Drinking less, exercising every day, and getting eight hours of sleep are all really great in theory, but come February, old patterns sneak back into daily life. The same limitations of introspection occur when answering a questionnaire. It is easy for a survey respondent to reject a controversial topic like race, gender or religion by assuming biases align with expectations. The misconception is caused by assuming bias and bigotry are one in the same. Implicit biases do not equate to prejudice, since the participant’s internal bias may contradict conscious preferences.

Due to the unintentionality and unawareness of implicit biases, asking someone to articulate them is extremely challenging. Without realizing it, the brain categorizes groups known as schemas constantly. Bracketing objects, concepts or people allows our brain to infer and react to future situations more efficiently (Berkman, 2018). While that is a very normal human experience, misjudgment (both positive and negative) is common due to schemas. Unfortunately, the consequences of implicit bias slipups can be grave. Therefore, the way a person reacts and behaves as a result of the implicit bias is what raises concern. 

Assessing the Damage

So how can we address implicit bias? The first step involved in discussion of implicit associations is acknowledging that everyone has them, and therefore, each person’s bias has the potential to be explored. One common psychological measure used to assess implicit bias is the concept of implicit testing. The general theory behind implicit testing is if a concept and a word match a person’s perception, there is a high association which causes a faster response compared to a word that clashes with the concept (Morley, 2019). If a concept is about broccoli, a participant may have a high association for the word “healthy” compared to the word “sweet.” Implicit testing has multiple variations which approach uncovering biases in different ways. The type of implicit testing best to utilize is dependent on the research question being investigated.

Project Implicit is a great resource for explanations on implicit bias through services such as lectures, workshops and IAT tests specific to certain social topics including gender, disability, sexuality and others. When taking this test, participants sort pictures of European or African faces with positive or negative words into groups as quickly as possible (Project Implicit, 2011). (Take Project Implicit’s IAT here!) The IAT is paired with survey and demographic questions before results are provided. The results are clearly expressed and explained, describing how the IAT determines the results based on speed of response to certain stimuli. The description of the preference includes one of four options (slight, moderate, strong or no preference) which indicates the strength of the response (see Figure 1). For a person with no association or bias, the response should remain consistent regardless of the different variables presented (Morley, 2019).   

Figure 1: An example of an output from taking Project Implicit’s Race IAT (ProjectImplicit, 2011).

IAT is linked to neural and affective processes (Devine, Forscher, Austin, & Cox, 2012). Since brains are malleable and adjust to situations constantly, the results of an implicit test will also adjust accordingly. This means that the implicit race bias of the IAT is representative of a single moment; therefore, it does not have high test-retest reliability. However, the tool has been cited for giving insights when comparing levels of implicit prejudice or stereotyping with certain populations to analyze correlations in behavior differences (FitzGerald, Martin, Berner, & Hurst, 2019).

Being immersed in a society can either reinforce or change implicit associations over time. The recent tragic event concerning George Floyd reminds us black people continue to experience discrimination and adverse outcomes compared to their white counterparts (Devine, Forscher, Austin, & Cox, 2012). Strategies and interventions are widely researched to expose implicit biases and prevent them from impacting an individual’s interactions with others (FitzGerald, Martin, Berner, & Hurst, 2019). Research suggests counter-stereotype exposure and education interventions can decrease implicit bias, thus depleting negative stereotypes (Kang, 2012). Self-understanding also allows for cognitive improvement on the topic, with research suggesting equal decision making upheld when the influence of bias is brought to the forefront of attention (Casey, Warren, & Elek, 2012). Increasing awareness and concern is a crucial component in altering the implicit bias. Through such efforts, a conversation about the principles of equality will encourage all to work towards resolving the issues of discrimination.  

The Rundown of Implicit Applications

While implicit testing has helped shed light on implicit bias of stigmatized groups, the implicit testing can also evaluate attitudes of any type of concept- person, place, thing or idea. Biases are an innate factor in how humans’ function and can help build habits, advance our ability to learn and improve the way we live. HCD commissions implicit testing to measure consumer perceptions and bias to improve concepts, packaging and products. The validated research supporting implicit testing has proved to tackle a range of questions within market research, as well as in multiple sectors of social psychology, medicine and education. Using this tool helps us gain a deeper understanding of individuals’ personal biases, giving a window into subliminal values and beliefs. Implicit testing is one of the many ways we can work to better understand ourselves, as consumers and as people, to promote positive change.    

If you are interested in starting a conversation about implicit testing or the topics covered in this blog, please feel free to contact HCD Research via email at info@hcdi.net or call 908.788.9393.

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