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October 12, 2016

Everyone's a little bit biased, sometimes

Daily Briefing

Everyone holds some form of implicit bias—and understanding our biases can help us better approach our day-to-day interactions, Emily Badger writes for the New York Times' "The Upshot."

Badger explains that implicit bias "in many forms ... is a healthy human adaptation" that help us make rapid connections between different concepts. Some implicit biases are totally harmless, like assuming that you will find fresher produce at a farm stand.

But implicit bias has become a hot topic in the news for more negative reasons, as it can foster unconscious associations with certain identities. One example of implicit bias highlighted in the vice presidential debate is making a connection between black people and violence.

Implicit bias can clearly be a problem in some situations, but it's not something that people can simply get rid of, experts say.

"These types of cultural biases are like smog in the air," said Jennifer Richeson, a Yale University psychologist, referring to a saying by former Spelman College President Beverly Daniel Tatum. "To live and grow up in our culture, then, is to 'take in' these cultural messages and biases and do so largely unconsciously."

Therefore, experts say our goal shouldn't be to eliminate implicit biases, but rather to address the ways in which they shape our thinking. It's especially important to talk about implicit bias in the context of race, Badger says, because doing so allows us to see the many ways in which each person may contribute to inequality.

Without recognizing the influence of implicit bias, "You're removing the language that allows you talk about the mechanism of inequality," said Phillip Atiba Goff, president of the Center for Policing Equity at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. "If you take away that language, what that means is inequality gets stronger and justice gets weaker. It really gets that serious."

Attempting to erase implicit bias completely may even backfire. According to Tony Greenwald, a psychology professor at the University of Washington, training that aims to undo implicit biases may give participants the false belief that they have overcome their prejudices. It's much more effective to address these complicated and often uncomfortable issues head-on, he said.

"Just wanting to eliminate implicit bias is not sufficient," Greenwald said. "You can't unlearn implicit biases. We live in a society and culture where the influences that create these are so strong and pervasive, that we're not going to get rid of those influences in any short period" (Badger, "The Upshot," New York Times, 10/5).

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