Social scientists are finding that hidden biases affect our daily decisions and behaviors in subtle and unconscious ways — for example, in hiring decisions or calling basketball fouls.
Unconscious or automatic biases are social stereotypes about groups of people that we form without much thought. Stereotypes are exaggerated beliefs, images or distorted truths about a person or group. They are based on images in mass media or ideas passed along by parents, peers or others to whom we refer, and they may be positive or negative. Common human characteristics that are subject to bias include: age, gender, gender identity, physical abilities, religion, sexual orientation and weight.
“When you think backward, what you think is normal is really cultural pressure that pushes you into bias, implicit and conscious,” said sociologist Charles Gallagher, chairman of the Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice at LaSalle University in Philadelphia.
We live in neighborhoods and cities that have taken years to form through the influences of social, political and cultural forces. Our relationships, interactions and experiences within these communities influence hidden biases. They start forming in children as young as 6 years old and then are reinforced by continued social experiences.
In recent educational sessions provided for staff in our school district by Charleon Jeffries, M.Ed., a diversity educator at Penn State, we had the opportunity to examine some of our own biases through some engaging activities. Many of us were amazed at assumptions we had made as we listened to a story and then answered true or false questions about what we heard. Our assumptions came from cultural stereotypes that accompany similar kinds of stories that most of us grew up hearing, such as those involving beautiful princesses and wicked witches.
In follow-up discussions, we continue to examine how bias may play a part in our relationships with co-workers, families and the community. We aim to counter and start to undo some of the often automatic, unconscious associations we may not realize we are making. To accomplish this, we have work to do both personally and organizationally.
Awareness is first: Recognizing that we all carry implicit bias is important. Even those of us who have vowed to be impartial in our judgments of others have them. Our implicit biases may not even align with our conscious beliefs.
We can learn more about our own biases. Several tests have been developed that allow us to examine the associations we make about identifying characteristics of others. Psychologists at Harvard, the University or Virginia and the University of Washington have created “Project Implicit” to develop Hidden Bias Tests to measure unconscious bias.
As we become aware of ways in which we may be biased, we can catch ourselves before our attitudes affect our behaviors. We can challenge ourselves to seek experiences that can alter our perceptions.
Jeffries will present her workshop to the community for Straight Talk at 7 p.m. on Jan. 23 at Mount Nittany Middle School. Please join us.
Connie Schulz, is a State College Area School District family outreach specialist. This column was written in consultation with Charleon Jeffries, M.Ed., Penn State.
If you go
What: Straight Talk: “Subtle Slights: The Hidden Bias of Good People”
When: 7 p.m. Jan. 23
Where: Mount Nittany Middle School, 656 Brandywine Drive, State College