Have you ever heard of implicit bias?
In simplest terms, it’s bias that someone doesn’t even know he has. Scientists have learned that the average person only has conscious access to about 5% of his brain. As a result, much of the work a typical person’s brain does is on an unconscious level.
Implicit bias occurs on this unconscious level. It is a form of prejudice that occurs when someone consciously rejects stereotypes and discrimination, but also holds unconscious negative associations in his mind. Implicit bias does not mean that an individual is hiding his racial prejudices – he literally does not know that he has them.
While the measuring of unconscious biases might seem inconsequential on the surface, it takes on new meaning when we see bias’ impact in the real world. Studies show that doctors are more likely to prescribe life-saving care to whites, that managers are more likely to hire and promote members of their own in-group and that referees in basketball might be more likely to subtly favor players with whom they share a racial identity.
These biases are incredibly difficult to control, because they form so early in life. Social scientists believe children begin to acquire prejudices and stereotypes as toddlers. Children as young as age three learn terms of racial prejudice without really understanding their significance. They form attachments to their own groups and develop negative attitudes about other racial or ethnic groups. Over time, most children acquire a full set of biases that become the foundation of stereotypes, prejudice and, ultimately, discrimination.
Also known as hidden or unconscious bias, implicit bias has become a hot topic of study for psychologists at Harvard, the University of Virginia and the University of Washington. Researchers at these institutions have created Implicit Association Tests, or IATs, to measure the prevalence and degree of unconscious bias.
IAT research is relevant for HR and other hiring managers, because of its application to the hiring process. While interviewers may believe that they’re impartial, unconscious biases may affect their attitudes toward candidates of other races – and ultimately their hiring decisions.
How do you manage these potential hiring biases if you’re not sure they even exist? Knowledge is power. Take the Implicit Association Test, part of the Project Implicit Harvard research study. Scores are not a definitive assessment of your implicit thoughts or feelings, but should provide opportunities for self-reflection.
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