DISCOVERING HIDDEN BELIEFS
Section 1: Do you know your own mind?
In the middle of a comedy act in a Los Angeles club, Michael Richards (best known as
“Kramer” on Seinfeld) launched into a racist tirade against several African American
audience members. Shortly thereafter, Michael Richards appeared on late-night TV,
apologizing for his actions, explaining with what seemed to be sincere confusion that what
was “so crazy about this” is he did not consider himself to be a racist.
Could Micheal Richards actually hold an unconscious bias against African Americans
without consciously believing he was a racist? Can unconscious, or implicit biases as they
are sometimes called, influence your behavior without your knowledge? Might you have an
unknown bias lurking in your unconscious?
Researchers at Harvard University have devised a test they say can detect these implicit
attitudes. In this training, we will discuss what an implicit bias is, how it may impact your
behavior, how to test for hidden beliefs, the real-world effects of bias, and finally we will
look at what you can do to reduce the impact of bias.
What is an implicit bias?
Simply put, an implicit bias is a hidden preference. This hidden preference may be as
benign as a preference for flowers over insects, or as potentially damaging as a preference
for people of one ethnicity over another.
An implicit bias is hidden; so well hidden that individuals are most often unaware of them.
In the late 1990’s, Harvard University created a test that allows users to identify implicit
biases. Out of the more than 3 million people that have been tested since that time, 80%
were found to have negativity toward the elderly as opposed to the young, and 75-80% of
whites and Asians were found to prefer white people over black.
These unknown beliefs can lurk in the minds of good-intentioned people, influencing their
behavior without their conscious knowledge. People can have an implicit bias while
honestly claiming they do not discriminate. These hidden beliefs can have a significant
impact in the business world, influencing hiring decisions and creating work environments
hostile to certain groups.
Could you have an implicit bias? If so, what can you do about it?
Is Bias Biological?
Diversity training commonly views bias as resulting from cultural influences, but implicit
bias may actually have a biological cause.
The implicit system is thought to be part of the "primitive" brain, designed to make quick,
reactionary decisions. These mental shortcuts may be helpful for staying alive in the jungle
(ex: deciding if a snake is poisonous), but these snap judgments may also lead to bias in our
As Malcom Gladwell, author of the best-selling book “Blink” describes: “Our brain uses two
very different strategies to make sense of …situation[s]. The first is the one we're most
familiar with. It's the conscious strategy. … There's a second strategy, though. It operates a
lot more quickly.… It has the drawback, however, that it operates…entirely below the
surface of consciousness … our brain reaches conclusions without immediately telling us
that it's reaching conclusions.”
Luckily, biology isn’t destiny. It appears that while these cognitive shortcuts may be wired
into us all, they are also fairly simple to change: Good news for all of us living in the urban
jungles of the 21st century rather than the jungles of our ancestors.
Meet the new employees of HighDollar Hotels Inc.
Steven was hired 3 months ago at HighDollar Hotels Inc. and is doing very well in his
position. One of the things Steven loves about his new job is how personable everyone is.
His co-workers seem to be genuinely interested in each other as people. At the same time
the warm, personable culture is making Steven anxious. He hasn’t yet told anyone on his
team that he is gay, and he is worried about how they will react. Steven finds himself
holding back information about what he does on the weekend and never mentions his
partner of 10-years, Rick.
Cassie was thrilled to land the job of her dreams at HighDollar Hotels Inc. so quickly after
getting her MBA. While Cassie loves her work, she is actually considering quitting. She just
doesn’t feel like she fits in. Every time she goes to a meeting, people are talking about their
kids. Cassie is happily single and doesn’t plan on having children, but she’s finding this a
real obstacle to getting to know other people and doesn’t feel like she’s given the same
consideration as her co-workers with families when asking for time off or raises.
The Awkward Exchange
Christopher, one of Steven’s co-workers, has been trying to “set him up” with a series of
girls since he heard Steven wasn’t married. Steven finally tells Christopher that he is gay.
Christopher seems uncomfortable and embarrassed, but says that some of his best friends
have been gay. Steven notices however, that Christopher doesn’t stop by his desk to chat
during break as much anymore.
While the change in Christopher and Steven’s relationship is subtle, it is likely that
Christopher’s awkward behavior is a result of having an implicit bias against homosexuals
despite his conscious protests to the contrary. While Christopher’s behavior isn’t illegal,
implicit biases can promote behavior that can be considered harassment or illegal
Steven has been planning a Hawaiian Holiday Cruise. Since he was first in line to submit a
request for time off, he is shocked when his request is denied and Christopher’s later
request is honored. His supervisor Greg, explains that he doesn’t have “problems” with
Steven being gay, but granted Christopher the leave since he has a “real family.”
Denying Steven’s request for time off on the basis of his sexual orientation may be
considered both illegal discrimination and harassment in those locations where sexual
orientation is protected by law. Certainly, while Greg claims not to have a “problem” with
Steven’s sexual orientation, his discriminatory behavior strongly suggests that he holds
implicit bias against homosexuals.
It seems everyone else is socializing at family activities to which Cassie is never invited.
After a meeting, Cassie expresses her frustration at being left out. Barbara, a co-worker,
replies “you’re just jealous because you don’t have kids or a husband.” Afterward, Barbara
begins leaving advertisements for sperm banks and dating services in Cassie’s “To Do” box.
Barbara’s harassment of Cassie is likely caused by an implicit bias against females in the
workplace and should be stopped immediately. Allowing the harassment to continue or
affording opportunities for advancement in the workplace based on participation in social
functions not open to Cassie may also be considered illegal discrimination, and is causing
legal risk for HighDollar Hotels Inc.
Interest Page: Implicit Bias Influences Medical Treatment
Could a doctor’s unconscious beliefs affect treatments offered to patients? A disturbing
study out of Massachusetts General Hospital is suggesting just that.
Doctors were given a case study of a 50-year-old man named “Mr. Thompson” with a
history of high blood pressure and smoking who was complaining of chest pain. The
doctors were asked to diagnose and recommend treatment for “Mr. Thompson.” Some of
the doctors were told that the patient was black, and others were told that he was white.
The study found that doctors more often diagnosed the “black Mr. Thompson” with
coronary artery disease, but that they tended to prescribe aggressive treatment for the
“white Mr. Thompson” more often.
Implicit bias appears to be the primary factor in their treatment decision, as doctors with
higher implicit bias against black people were less likely to prescribe aggressive treatment.
Their choice of treatment was not correlated with their stated views on racism but the
relationship appeared only with the unconscious preference for white people over black
Ignorance is Bliss?
Discovering an often politically-incorrect bias lurking in your own psyche is not an
appealing prospect for most people. So why would anyone want to take a test to find out
what is going on in their unconscious mind? And does it really matter if someone holds
hidden biases toward other types of people?
The evidence -- from years of studies and literally millions of samples --indicates that the
implicit biases we hold DO make a difference in the way we behave.
According to the Harvard test of implicit bias, unconscious preference for whites over
blacks has been observed at high rates in test subjects. Not surprisingly, race is also the
most-alleged basis of employment discrimination under federal law.
Several studies have demonstrated a relationship between implicit biases and
discrimination. For example, one study showed that employers preferred white applicants
with a criminal record over black applicants with no criminal history and another study
indicated that temporary agencies preferred white applicants three-to-one over black
Obviously, the impact of implicit bias cannot be ignored. Luckily attitudes can also be
changed, and the first step toward a less-biased way of thinking is to discover your own
How does an implicit bias test work?
There are several ways of measuring implicit bias, but the Implicit Attitude Test (IAT)
devised at Harvard University is by far the most widely publicized approach. The IAT
works by asking you to sort images or words into categories. The theory is that the more
closely associated the two concepts are, the easier and faster you will be able to pair them.
For example, the concepts of “dog” and “pet” are closely associated so it should be easier
(and faster) for a person to pair them than a less-familiar “dog” and “food source” pairing.
The theory behind the IAT is that the more rapidly you are able to pair two concepts, the
more strongly associated those concepts are.
WHAT WE HAVE LEARNED:
Individuals can hold an unconscious bias against a certain group, even while
honestly stating that they don’t believe they discriminate.
Implicit bias may have biological roots in the primitive brain. Originally, the
primitive brain made quick judgments about the environment to assist with
survival, but these quick judgments can now lead to stereotypes and bias.
The majority of people probably hold some type of implicit bias. These biases are
probably influenced by negative cultural and mass media messages about
Implicit biases have been shown to influence behavior. These implicit biases can
have a significant impact decisions made in your personal life, the business world,
and even in medical decisions.
Once discovered and acknowledged, implicit biases can be reduced.
Section 2: DISCOVERING HIDDEN BELIEFS
These results can’t be right …
The Harvard IAT has been the subject of much debate and many studies. Many test takers
protest that since the results do not match their stated beliefs, the order of the images or
words must be affecting the outcome, or the test results are merely measuring eye/hand
coordination. Research findings however, have shown that not only are these claims
invalid, but there is actually strong evidence to suggest that the IAT is a better predictor of
biased behavior than an individual’s stated beliefs.
The IAT is not, however, without limitations. The researchers who developed the test
caution users as to how the findings should be applied, stating: “...it is much preferable to
use it mainly to develop awareness of one’s own and others’ automatic preferences and
stereotypes. Using the IAT as the basis for making significant decisions about self or others
could lead to undesired and unjustified consequences.”
The presence of an implicit bias against women for example, does not make you a
chauvinist. Although implicit biases can have a strong influence on behavior, individuals
still can exercise conscious control over their actions. And the bottom line is: behavior is
If You Hold A Hidden Bias, You Are Not Alone…
Many test takers are shocked to find they hold an implicit bias against one or more groups,
despite the fact that they honestly do not believe they are biased. The millions of tests that
have been taken on the IAT website show that the vast majority of people have some type
of bias, and many even hold a bias against members of their own group.
Even though most test takers claimed to have no preference, 88 percent of white people
had a pro-white implicit bias; 82 percent of heterosexuals showed implicit biases for
straight people; more than two-thirds of non-Arab, non-Muslim volunteers had implicit
biases against Arab Muslims; and the majority of test takers showed a bias in favor of men
in the workplace and women in domestic roles.
Even members of minority groups demonstrated an implicit bias against members of their
own group: nearly half of all black people tested showed a pro-white bias; over one-third of
Arab Muslims showed an anti-Muslim bias; and 38 percent of gays and lesbians showed a
bias for straight people over homosexuals.
There’s just something about Mary…
Mary has been with HighDollar Hotels Inc. for 10 years, working hard to move up. She’s just
been told that she wasn’t selected for the promotion she applied for. Mary is stunned. She
knows she is the most qualified candidate for the job and yet this is the second time she has
been turned down for the position. Mary doesn’t want to be “paranoid” but is starting to
wonder if she hasn’t received promotions because she is a woman.
Tom, a Vice-President at HighDollar Hotels Inc. is feeling uncertain about the promotion
decision he has just made. After reviewing all the candidates, Tom chose Mark for the
promotion instead of Mary, even though “on paper” Mary seemed to be the more qualified
candidate. He knows Mary is going to be disappointed and he will have to justify his choice,
but he can’t really explain it. Mary certainly has been a valuable employee and had all the
right qualifications, but something just felt wrong about promoting her over Mark. In the
end, the promotion decision was really just based on a “gut feeling.” He hopes he made the
Could Tom’s decision be based on a hidden bias?
Mary files a discrimination complaint and Tom is required to complete training on hidden
beliefs. He discovers that “gut feeling” about Mary was probably based on his unconscious
bias against women. Tom sees how his bias is limiting professionally and personally and
wants to change, but doesn’t know how.
Positive information, experiences and real-life exposure to women in the business world
may help to reduce Tom’s bias. Participating in activities typically dominated by women
and seeking out professional relationships with women may also help. Interestingly,
studies suggest that actively trying to suppress negative thoughts does not reduce bias and
may actually exacerbate the issue.
INTEREST PAGE: Business Impact of Implicit Bias
Does implicit bias affect who gets hired? To find out, economists at the MIT and the
University of Chicago sent out 5,000 résumés to 1,250 hiring employers. Every employer
got four “résumés”: two average applicants (one with a “black” name and one with a
“white” name), and two highly skilled applicants (one with a “black” name and one with a
“white” name). Then they measured which “applicants” were called for interviews.
To the economists' surprise, the résumés with white-sounding names triggered 50% more
callbacks than résumés with black-sounding names. In fact, the highly skilled “black”
résumés drew no more calls than the average “black” résumés. More distressingly, the
average “white” applicant received many more callbacks than the highly skilled “black”
applicants. Now consider the fact that the employers in the area stated they were actively
recruiting for minority candidates.
Human resource professionals informed of the study were stunned. The potential
significance of implicit biases’ impact on job opportunities for minority candidates cannot
be understated when one considers that 80% of whites and Asians who have taken the
Harvard IAT show a preference for whites over blacks.
The Resume Revamp
HighDollar Hotels Inc. wants to make certain that implicit biases do not influence hiring
decisions. You are instructed to create a “bias free” resume review process.
While HighDollar Hotels Inc. should establish and inform all employees of policies
prohibiting discrimination, this instruction alone is probably not sufficient to eliminate the
influence of unconscious beliefs. Having someone not involved in the interview process
remove personal information and/or names of applicants and presenting only the
qualifications along with an identifying code might be one way to lessen the chances of
screening out qualified applicants on the basis of an implicit bias.
Leveling the Playing Field
The resumes have been screened and you are ready to interview applicants, but you want
to ensure that the interviewing process is also fair and minimizes the influence of implicit
Telling interviewers to be unbiased while interviewing applicants probably won’t help to
minimize the effect of unconscious bias. To reduce the influence of bias, try selecting a
panel of interviewers from diverse age, race, gender, and other backgrounds. In cases
where a single interviewer must choose a candidate, some organizations choose to conduct
phone interviews to minimize the influence of bias.
WHAT WE HAVE LEARNED: Minimizing Implicit Bias in the Workplace
Implicit biases and the effect they have on hiring and employee development
practices can exert large, cumulative influences over recruiting and retaining
employees who are members of a minority group.
Removing personal information from resumes before screening for interviews may
help minimize the influence of racial bias.
Selecting diverse groups of individuals to interview applicants may help to minimize
the influence of bias in the interview process.
Some organizations that cannot provide a panel of interviewers choose to minimize
bias by conducting telephone interviews or seating applicants behind a screen.
Implicit biases may be minimized by increasing your exposure to the group you hold
a bias against, reading or viewing positive stories about members of the group, and
consciously choosing to interact with people you may normally avoid.
Trying to suppress negative thoughts may actually increase bias. Instead, try
increasing the number of positive thoughts about the group in question.
What Can You Do?
Most everyone holds some type of implicit bias. The good news is reducing these biases is
possible by making some simple, consistent changes. Print out and use the following pages
to help create your own personalized bias-reduction plan!
LOSE THE ATTITUDE: Suggestions for Bias Reduction
The suggested activities below may lessen your implicit bias:
1. Identify and watch three movies that show positive examples of the group you are
biased against (ex: older adult bias = watch “Cocoon”)
2. Identify a member of the group you are biased against that has made a positive
contribution to society. Read about this person’s life and post a photo of the
individual somewhere you will see it regularly.
3. Make a conscious effort to smile and greet members of the group you hold a bias
against when you have the opportunity.
4. Read a book about the history of the group you hold a bias against.
5. Take a trip to a neighborhood ...
Purchase answer to see full