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Implicit bias: Causes, examples, and how to overcome it

Reviewed by Brooks Baer, LCPC, CMHP

Illustration of two head outlines facing each other, one with a question mark in its mind and the other with a smiling face inside

Biases are assumptions you make about a person, group, situation, or thing. Your background, cultural environment, and personal experiences may influence the types of biases you have. They can be positive or negative, but often they’re not fair or accurate.

Implicit bias definition

An implicit bias (also called an unconscious bias) is any bias a person holds on a level that they are not consciously aware of. Implicit biases can affect the way you behave and the decisions you make without your realizing it.

Biases affect how our brains use data and make decisions. They often result from our brains trying to simplify information. Sometimes our implicit biases involve stereotypes based on race, gender, or sexuality. They develop as we unconsciously search for patterns to navigate the world more easily. Implicit biases are influenced by our upbringing, life experiences, the media, and our culture. 

Everyone is susceptible to unconscious bias. And it’s often easier to notice bias in others than it is to recognize it in ourselves. While we may notice flaws in other people’s thinking, our own biases may appear as “gut instincts.” They can be difficult to detect in the moment because we are often unaware of our own harmful assumptions.

What causes unconscious bias?

The human brain is hardwired to subconsciously recognize potential patterns and try applying them. Relying on patterns is an easier way of understanding a complex world, but it’s not always accurate.

Our unconscious biases come from a variety of sources, including:

A predetermined worldview: We tend to interpret new information in a way that confirms our existing beliefs. This is the case even when the evidence should contradict our worldview.

Cultural pressure: Every society promotes certain beliefs about what’s acceptable or desirable and what isn’t. These beliefs can affect our decision-making.

Childhood lessons: We often learn certain biases in childhood, both explicitly and implicitly. As children, we absorb information about the world and tend to accept the attitudes and actions of our parents and other influential adults.

Heightened emotions or trauma: Often, we develop unconscious biases after enduring highly stressful or traumatic situations. Intense memories can deeply ingrain beliefs about safety and trust into our minds. A therapist may be needed to help process intense emotions or trauma.

Implicit bias examples

Implicit bias can exist in virtually all areas and aspects of life. Some common examples of unconscious bias include:

Implicit bias in the workplace: Managers may unconsciously favor employees who share their own interests and background. This is called affinity bias.

Implicit bias in hiring processes: Many people have names associated with a particular race or ethnicity. Research shows that African American and Latino people are less likely to receive callbacks for interviews from hiring managers.1 This is known as name bias.

Implicit bias in healthcare: A 2015 study found that heterosexual health care professionals had implicit preferences for heterosexual people over gay and lesbian people.2 These biases affected their interactions with LGBTQIA+ patients without the providers even being aware of it.

Implicit bias in schools: Teachers and other faculty carry implicit gender biases that can lead to students receiving different test scores, or having different odds of being accepted to universities, based on gender.3 

The halo effect

The halo effect is when your general impression of someone influences your opinion of their actual traits and actions. Basically, if you view a person positively in one way, you tend to assume their other attributes are also positive. For example, if you find out someone graduated from an elite university, you may assume they are highly intelligent and accomplished.

The opposite of the halo effect is the horn effect. This is when you make a snap judgment about someone on the basis of one negative trait. A single negative trait can lead to an unfairly negative overall impression of a person.

How to overcome unconscious bias

Unconscious biases are often tied up in how we feel. They can also be difficult to catch because they happen automatically. To prevent unconscious bias, you have to work on developing an awareness of your thoughts and behaviors and learn to question your own motivations.

Take an implicit bias test. Implicit Association Tests (IATs) are online tests designed to measure unconscious associations between certain characteristics and groups of people. These tests can help reveal hidden biases related to race, gender, age, and other factors. Several of these tests are offered online through Harvard University.4

Practice self-reflection. Spend time honestly reflecting on your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors in different situations. Consider whether you have made assumptions or judgments about others based on stereotypes or limited information.

Analyze your decisions and actions. Examine your past decisions and actions to identify any patterns of bias. For example, reflect on whether you have favored or disadvantaged certain groups in hiring, promotions, or task assignments. Consider what conscious steps you can take to avoid this in the future.

Seek feedback from others. Ask trusted colleagues, friends, or family members to provide constructive feedback on your interactions and decision-making processes. They may notice biases that you are unaware of.

Be open to uncomfortable realizations. Recognizing your biases may challenge your self-perception. Approach this process with curiosity, humility, and a willingness to grow.

Invest in unconscious bias training to learn strategies for recognizing and overcoming biases. Many employers offer this training. Professional associations, educational institutions, online learning platforms, and nonprofits also offer it.

Stay mindful and question your assumptions. Slow down and consider whether your judgments or decisions may be influenced by unconscious biases.

Seek diverse perspectives. Surround yourself with people from diverse backgrounds and actively listen to their experiences and viewpoints.

Use objective criteria. Follow structured interview formats, with standardized questions and objective evaluation criteria, to minimize the impact of biases in hiring and performance evaluations.

Hold yourself and others accountable. Set goals and hold yourself and your organization accountable for creating a more inclusive environment. Put policies in place that allow people to call out cases of bias.

Seek therapy. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can help you learn to slow down, identify what you’re feeling, and discuss the thoughts behind it. As you learn about your own thoughts and feelings, you can explore alternatives and learn to choose healthier behaviors. CBT can also help you learn to recognize harmful assumptions and work to consciously change them. Overcoming unconscious biases can be challenging. A therapist can provide judgment-free support to help you or someone you care about. It’s never too late to begin making more objective, thoughtful decisions and reducing unintentional harm.

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