Implicit Bias


  1. What is implicit bias?
  2. Some examples on implicit bias
  3. Some data on implicit bias
  4. So you think you aren’t implicitly biased?
  5. Are you responsible for your implicit bias?
  6. Counteracting implicit bias
  7. Implicit bias and peer review
  8. Further Information

What is Implicit Bias?

Implicit bias is a subtle and pervasive form of bias against members of a group merely in virtue of their membership in that group. As opposed to explicit bias, which can consist in overtly discriminatory beliefs, actions, or institutional policies, implicit bias often consists of unconscious tacit attitudes and unintentional actions towards a group which may be in direct conflict with a person’s explicit beliefs and values. Most implicitly biased actions are performed by people who are not even aware that their actions are biased. Even the most well-meaning and conscientious people have implicit biases. Implicit biases have a negative impact on targets of such bias and on departmental and professional (and other social) climates.

Some Examples of Implicit Bias

  • A woman or member of an underrepresented group makes a point in a seminar or colloquium, only to be ignored, and then a white male makes the same point a little later, only to be applauded for his insight.  
  • A speaker or instructor fails to notice or call on women or members of other underrepresented groups.
  • A speaker or instructor allows men or whites to talk without raising their hands but not women or members of other underrepresented groups.
  • When writing recommendation letters, an advisor unintentionally uses different language or focuses on different features when writing for a woman from those she or he uses when writing for a man.  For example, instead of focusing on women’s accomplishments and academic caliber as the advisor would for a male advisee, the advisor focuses on how hard the candidate has worked, includes irrelevant references to her personal life, and makes weaker or ambiguous praise.
  • When reading recommendation letters, an evaluator unintentionally attributes joint work to the collaborator, or interprets ambiguous wording in a way that hurts the candidate.

Some Data on Implicit Bias

  • A study of over 300 recommendation letters for medical faculty hired by a large U.S. medical school found that letters for female applicants differed systematically from those for males. Letters written for women were shorter, provided “minimal assurance” rather than solid recommendation, raised more doubts, portrayed women as students and teachers while portraying men as researchers and professionals, and more frequently mentioned women’s personal lives. (F. Trix, C. Psenka, (2003) Discourse & Society, 14.)
  • Anonymous review is only rarely practiced in ecology and evolution journals. However, one such journal, Behavioural Ecology, recently started to have all articles reviewed anonymously.  It led to a 33% increase in papers accepted by female authors. (Budden, A., Tregenza, T.,  Aarssen, L., Koricheva, J., Leimu, R. and Lortie, C. (2008), “Double-Blind Review Favours Increased Representation of Female Authors”, Trends in Ecology and Evolution 23:1, 4-6.)
  • When symphony orchestras adopted “blind” auditions by using a screen to conceal candidates’ identities, the hiring of women musicians increased.  (C. Goldin, C. Rouse. (2000), American Economic Review, 90.)
  • Research shows that incongruities between perceptions of female gender roles and leadership roles cause evaluators to assume that women will be less competent leaders. When women leaders provide clear evidence of their competence, thus violating traditional gender norms, evaluators perceive them to be less likeable and are less likely to recommend them for hiring or promotion. (A.H. Eagly, S.J. Karau. (2002), Psychological Review, 109; C.L. Ridgeway. (2001), Journal of Social Issues, 57; M.E. Heilman. (1980), Organizational Behavior and Human Performance, 26.)
  • Implicit biases are pervasive: they appear as statistically "large" effects that are often shown by majorities of samples of Americans. Over 80% of web respondents show implicit negativity toward the elderly compared to the young; 75-80% of self-identified Whites and Asians show an implicit preference for racial White relative to Black. (From the Project Implicit®)
  • People differ in levels of implicit bias: implicit biases vary from person to person - for example as a function of the person’s group memberships, the dominance of a person’s membership group in society, consciously held attitudes, and the level of bias existing in the immediate environment. This last observation makes clear that implicit attitudes are modified by experience. (From the Project Implicit®)

So You Think You Aren't Implicitly Biased?

  • Participants' self-conceptions as being objective increased the likelihood of exhibiting gender bias in a hiring evaluation task. So being reminded of how objective you think you are actually makes you more gender-biased (Uhlmann and Cohen 2007 ) .
  • People are better able to detect implicit biases in others than in themselves (Ponin, Lin, Ross 2013) . Studies show that the ‘bias blind spot’ and ‘better-than-average’ effect is not attenuated by increased cognitive ability. See a discussion of the phenomenon .
  • Participants in implicit bias study tended to ‘redefine’ or ‘construct ad hoc’ criteria they thought were relevant to job success to match their biased expectations. In one study, participants evaluated two hypothetical candidates for a job as chief of police. One candidate had extensive “street” experience but little formal education; the other had extensive formal education but little street experience. When the street-smart candidate was male and the book-smart candidate was female, participants said that street smarts were the most important criteria for being an effective police chief, and recommended promoting the man. However, when the street-smart candidate was female and the book-smart candidate was male, participants said book smarts were more important, and, once again, recommended the man. They unwittingly tailored their judgments about the tools necessary to be a successful police chief to match their gut feeling that the man was better suited than the woman for the job. (Uhlmann and Cohen 2005) .
  • A study targeting specifically the effects of age-and-gender bias on evaluations of philosophical essays found that old men are apparently believed to write better essays than young women. The study also found that being in a good mood enhanced gender biases and being in a bad mood reduced them. (Forgas 2011)

Are You Responsible for Your Implicit Bias?

Counteracting Implicit Bias

  • If you want to prevent it:
    1. Be aware of possible implicit biases you may have and the situations in which you tend to exhibit them.
    2. Be aware of possible implicit biases you may have or trigger in writing letters of recommendation.
    3. Consider “Changing the Ideology and Culture of Philosophy, Not by Reason (Alone).
    4. Check out Philosophical Spaces, a blog run by philosophers about professional climate issues in philosophy and what to do about climate problems.
    5. Read Mary Rowe on micro-inequities and strategies for dealing with people who ‘don’t get it’.
    1. Take time to read letters and use explicit reasoning and criteria for evaluation.
    1. Be aware of departmental events and situations that may contribute to implicit bias. For example, are all of your events all late at night when people with children cannot attend?
    2. For more information on how to create and sustain a thriving departmental climate, see the NSF ADVANCE website, “Climate and Culture”.
  • If you see it happen:
    1. Be an “Active Bystander”. For tips on how to do so, see MIT’s “Active Bystander Strategies” website.

Implicit Bias and Peer Review

Further Information

      1. NSF ADVANCE’s "Letters of Recommendation"
      2. NSF ADVANCE’s "Bias"
  • Project Implicit®