University of Washington psychology professor Anthony Greenwald considers himself a good guy, and didn’t think he had any hidden biases when it came to things like gender and race. But after giving himself a test he developed, he was stunned to learn the truth. It turns out we all have hidden biases of our own we don’t know about, but shape the way we see and interact with the world.
“The idea is that you have things in your head that you’re not aware of,” he said. The biggest one is race, according to Greenwald, who says about 75 percent of us have what he and co-author Mahzarin Banaji call “automatic white preference.”
“Through conditioning resulting from exposures to all sorts of information in our society and culture through their lifetimes, they react to a white person and black person differently and are more ready to behave positively towards a white person,” he said.
Yet most of us have no idea, or don’t want to believe it – even Greenwald – who created what he calls the Implicit Association Test to help uncover hidden biases.
The test rapidly displays a series of black and white faces and asks test takers to associate pleasant or unpleasant words with each.
“What I discovered when I created this test and took it the first time was that I was a lot slower when I was trying to give the same response to black faces and pleasant words and white faces and pleasant words,” he said. “It is almost impossible for people to pick up and have any convincing evidence that these biases are operating against them, so people might just be puzzled by what is going on.”
Another area where many of us harbor unknown biases is gender. Despite all of the gains made by women over the past few decades, Greenwald has found “a lot of sharing of biases that associate men more with work and career women more with family and home. This is widely shared not only in different cultures but between men and women,” he said. In fact, his tests reveal women tend to carry the bias slightly more than men.
So where do they come from? It’s far more nurture than nature, and it starts at a very early age as infants begin showing preferences for women over men and people of the same race over a differing race. “So far there’s no evidence that the genes are carrying the weight, so we think it’s more likely that it’s mostly environment, maybe entirely environment that is creating these associations that we are calling hidden biases,” he said.
You would think if we discovered our biases, it would be easy to get rid of them. But Greenwald said much like other ingrained behavior, they can be pretty tough to overcome.
“It’s like you decided all of a sudden I’m going to start calling my wife or my best friend by a different name. I could do that with great difficulty, but it would be an extremely difficult habit to break and that’s what these associations are,” he said.
At the end of the day, many just don’t want to believe they are biased, even if faced with compelling evidence to the contrary.
“It’s actually remarkable the extent to which people do not think they are victims of bias. They will readily think others are victims of bias but not themselves.”