You may still be doing damage, even if you don't intend to.

By Leah Groth
Updated September 24, 2020
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Even with the best, wokest intentions, there are times when our own stereotypes and assumptions creep in and affect how we see and treat others. This is called implicit bias, an unconscious, unintentional bias against others based on their race, gender, socioeconomic status, or sexual orientation.

It's a scary thing to realize that you have these unconscious biases—and that they can affect your relationships or interactions with others—but it's important to remember that you're not alone in these ingrained thoughts and feelings. Luckily, there are ways to tackle some of your own implicit biases, and the first way to do that is by understanding them. Here's what you need to know, so you can start doing the work.

What is implicit bias? 

So technically, "implicit bias refers to the attitudes or stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions, and decisions in an unconscious manner," according to The Ohio State University's Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity. These biases aren't really under our control, and instead are shaped by our social conditioning, beginning at an early age. "[Implicit bias] is not a choice we make," board-certified psychiatrist Margaret Seide, MD, tells Health. "It is beneath our level of awareness."

These implicit biases typically form from early life experiences, as well as news and media consumption throughout one's life. Watching others act out on their own implicit biases can also influence your own.

Implicit bias is also an "equal opportunity virus" of sorts, per the Kirwan Institute—that means everyone contains those unconscious attitudes, regardless of any cultural, racial, or other groups they belong to. And while implicit biases, for the most part, often refer to negative unconscious attitudes, they can also result in favorable outcomes.

What are some examples of implicit bias?

It may be best to recognize what implicit biases really are through examples. Let's say, for instance, if you see an Asian person and automatically assume they're not an American citizen—that's implicit bias at play. The same goes for associating Black people with danger or Black communities with less-safe neighborhoods.

Another example, according to Dr. Seide, refers to the role of women in positions of power. “Having worked in hospital settings for 20 years, I can tell you that an extremely powerful example of implicit bias is the fact that in the hospital, if you are a female caregiver, people will assume you are a nurse and if you are male, people will assume you are a doctor,” she says.

However, she reiterates that these manifestations are not ill-intentioned. “I am certain that when people make this error, they are not trying to be malicious and probably want your assistance or care,” Dr. Seide says. A testament to how powerful implicit bias can be? “In the hospital, with rare exceptions, everyone is wearing an identification badge which includes their credentials, but many times it still doesn’t register," she says.

What is the difference between implicit bias and racism or explicit bias? 

It's important to remember that implicit bias isn’t the same thing as racism or explicit discrimination. “Implicit bias is part of what drives racism, but implicit bias is not the same as racism,” Dr. Seide says. The main difference between implicit bias and racism is that racism—along with other explicit biases, like ageism, sexism, homophobia, and ableism—is conscious while implicit bias is unconscious. (That's not to say that outwardly prejudiced people aren't also implicitly biased, but most with implicit biases aren't outwardly prejudiced.)

Dr. Seide offers a scenario that may take place in a store: In the case of implicit bias, a store employee may think that a person of color may be more likely to steal, and therefore, observe them closely without even realizing they are doing so. Racism, on the other hand, would be when a store has a policy of signaling to its employees when a person of color enters the store and having them intentionally change their behavior in response.

How does implicit bias impact those on the receiving end?

Obviously, those who are on the receiving end of implicit bias suffer the most. “It can be exhausting and frustrating to be the recipient of implicit bias,” Dr. Seide says. It can also impact their self esteem, their career, or even their health. “Building your life around the low expectations that others may have of you will be very limiting,” she points out. For example, if people underestimate your ability because you are a woman, you might begin to undervalue your own talent because of this. 

In the HR space, there have been tons of studies on how hiring decisions are made within a span of a few seconds. “The way the interviewees carry themselves, their clothing, sound of their voice, height, complexion and even handshakes. All of it gets analyzed and assimilated within seconds," David Nace, MD, chief medical officer at Innovaccer, a Silicon Valley-based company aiming unify the health care system, tells Health.

In addition to career potential, it can also impact the type of care you receive. In the health care industry, especially, “there are biases at every level,” Dr. Nace maintains, ranging from an individual’s ability to become a health care worker, to how patients are treated by medical experts.

One 2017 review of studies, for example, found that an overwhelming amount of health care professionals do in fact have some sort of implicit bias, identifying “a significant positive relationship between level of implicit bias and lower quality of care.” The study found that biases likely influence care at every step—including diagnosis and treatment decisions.

How can you deal with implicit bias? 

Dr. Seide reiterates that the best chance we have in preventing implicit bias from impacting our lives is by being mindful of seeing it when it is occurring, “so that we don’t begin to absorb negative beliefs about ourselves,” she explains. That said, sometimes it can be difficult to know when you are the victim of implicit bias in the first place. And, even if you do, confronting it can be equally as complicated.

In terms of health care, for example, it's difficult to say things to the caregiver or doctor that will force them to recognize their own bias—and in that case, avoidance becomes the go-to route for many. "I often see patients take the easiest and quickest route by getting a second opinion," Dr. Nace says.

The right way to handle it, he says, if you do feel like a health care professional is brushing your symptoms off due to your gender, race, or sexual identity, is to be repetitive about your symptoms, in a non-emotionally insistent way. “Discuss and present it in a way that’s not perceived as argumentative, because these implicit biases are unconscious,” he suggests. 

Accepting that implicit bias is part of who people are—and not a conscious, and therefore mean or uncaring act—is the first step in dealing with it. Remember, “if something is not conscious then it cannot be malicious,” Dr. Seide points out. Reacting with patience and acceptance when you are the recipient of implicit bias is important for several reasons. It's common and unavoidable and you don’t want to be in a constant state of angst and frustration whenever you encounter it, she explains. 

How can you tackle your own implicit bias?

The first step to tackling your own implicit bias is by diagnosing it—and there's a simple way to do that right now: Project Implicit, a science-grounded test developed by Harvard University researchers can help you identify not only your implicit associations regarding race, gender, and sexual orientation, but there are also option to measure your unconscious biases about health topics (exercise, smoking, drug use) and between different social groups. 

Another way to begin tackling your implicit bias is by proactively taking account of your thought processes and beliefs, and by calling yourself and others out when in the wrong. Dr. Seide suggests working against the source of implicit bias—such as speaking up when ignorant comments are made in your company—because that may be planting the seed of bias in someone else. “Many of us shy away from deep conversations about racism or gender issues in the company of people who may be affected. We all want to be careful and safe and are terrified of making that statement that will offend someone,” she adds. 

However, unless we have these uncomfortable discussions—with others as well as with ourselves—nothing will change. “We have to be ready to be uncomfortable and honest with ourselves to the point of squirming in our seats to unearth what is in our subconscious," Dr. Seide says. "That’s how we can begin to recognize where we may have biases and attempt to unlearn some of whatever is supporting those biases.” 

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