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The research on implicit bias both fascinates and disturbs people. It’s pretty cool to realize that many everyday mental processes happen so quickly as to be imperceptible. But the fact that they are so automatic, and therefore outside of our conscious control, can be harder to stomach.
In other words, the invisible mental shortcuts that allow us to function can be quite problematic – and real barrier to social equality and fairness – in contexts where careful thinking and decision-making are necessary. Accumulating evidence reveals that “implicit biases” are linked to discriminatory outcomes ranging from the seemingly mundane, such as poorer quality interactions, to the highly consequential, such as constrained employment opportunities and a decreased likelihood of receiving life-saving emergency medical treatments.
Two excellent questions about implicit bias came up during our last Good Schools Seminar on “Creating Safe and Supportive Schools.”
- First, does one’s level of education moderate the magnitude of one’s implicit biases? In other words, wouldn’t it be reasonable to expect people with more education to have a broader repertoire of associations and, therefore, to be able to see beyond clichés and common places?
- Second, does the frequency of interaction with (and deep knowledge of) a person affect our reliance on stereotypic associations? Simply put, shouldn’t information that is individual-specific (e.g., Miguel loves Asimov novels) replace more generic information and associations (e.g., boys don’t like to read)?
The short (albeit simplified) answers are no and yes, respectively. Below, I elaborate on each, reflect on strategies that can help reduce the unintended ill effects of implicit biases, and touch on some implications for schools and educators.