How inherent bias influences our behaviour, stereotypes


A protester carries a sign about racism at Women’s March in Grant Park, Chicago on January 20, 2018. PHOTO | SHUTTERSTOCK

The world recoiled in shock and disgust at the brutal murder of African American George Floyd by a police officer in 2020.

Now one year since his tragic death, debate continues over racism in law enforcement as well as the role that implicit bias plays in police brutality. Many police officers who proclaim they hold no prejudices wind up shocking themselves with their biased actions and struggle to understand how they acted the way they did.

Additionally, bosses and executives in workplaces around the world, many who think consciously that they hold no racial, ethnic, gender, or other bias, end up only hiring, promoting, and favouring people who are like them.

Decades passed and psychologists failed to adequately explain this seeming cognitive dissonance.

Previously, since the great social psychologists of the 1930s including Floyd Allport, Louis Thurstone, EJ Chave, the field believed that in forming human attitudes and stereotypes that influence our behaviour decisions, people relied on conscious memories.

By the 1990s, direct measures for attitudes and stereotypes were ubiquitous whereby people were asked directly whether and what biases they have. It gave rise to people claiming they were not racists, not bigots, and not bias in their homes, communities, and work settings just because they did not believe they were.

But by 1995, pioneering social psychologists Anthony Greenwald and Mahzarin Banaji out of the University of Washington and Yale University respectively became the standard-bearers in explaining to the world about implicit bias in that social behaviour often operates in unconscious ways.

They felt that such self-reporting measures about someone’s prejudices were wholly inadequate to capture the plurality of reasons why people make the decisions that we do in social contexts.

Such misdiagnosis of stereotypes and attitudes lead to the inability of psychologists, political leaders, and business leaders to find solutions to bias and discrimination.

Now the world of social science understands that hints of earlier life experiences are not remembered explicitly but impact cognitive performance thus that an individual is unable to introspectively report these deeply held attitudes.

We are blind to the genesis of many of our memories that influence our thoughts and attitudes that then onward influence our behaviours.

From an evolutionary psychology perspective, such unconscious memories providing input into quick decision making provides a protective role to run from a lion seen out of the corner of one’s eye or jump when a snake tries to strike at your heel.

But from a social psychology point of view, experiences from one type of person may be overly generalised in our modern complex societies that result in pro or anti implicit bias unfairly impact others an individual interacts with in one’s community.

The duo’s 1995 article became so prolific that Anthony Greenwald and a team of other researchers developed the Implicit Association Test so people can assess their own implicit bias. The tool’s underlying basis implies that those with higher implicit bias are faster to associate positive terms with adjectives describing their race and all the while negative terms with adjectives describing other races. As an example, one might pair black to pleasant and white to unpleasant.

Other association pairs in the study included various adjectives, such as lucky, honour, poison, pleasure, peace, to different names that in the United States tend to be believed to be held by either white or black members of society. Psychologist Hart Blanton controversially proclaims in his studies that Americans who might have once been anti-black have now moved towards a decidedly pro-black bias.

As clinical psychologist began recognising implicit bias as an issue, the discipline came up with programmes to reduce implicit bias among patients. Cognitive bias modification (CBM) programmes sprung up often as online virtual completion of tasks. As CBM proliferated for other conditions, it was applied to change individuals’ implicit bias.

In Kenya, how are we with our implicit biases? Do we still hold deep prejudice that might go beyond what we even know about regarding pro or anti any ethnicity, gender, gender roles, foreigners, or income levels? Test out the original implicit associations test on the Harvard University website here and see how you score:

Dr Scott may be reached on [email protected] or on Twitter: @ScottProfessor