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This is what implicit bias looks like

28 November 2014

A liberal, tolerant exterior can - and almost certainly does - hide a deeply biased interior, warns Kate Kirkpatrick

THE idea that human behaviour is under conscious control has gone in and out of fashion. In the 20th century, Freud's view of the unconscious challenged the idea that we can know our own minds.

But his theory never gained support from scientists: attempts to test it empirically were inconclusive. Now, however, a new empirically vetted science of unconscious mental processes has emerged: "implicit bias". It has so much support that the case looks closed: we know not what we do.

"Implicit biases" so permeate our attitudes and our actions that even those of us who believe ourselves to be committed to equality and justice may unwittingly perpetuate inequality and injustice. Since Christians are not immune to human bias, these findings present the church with both a challenge and an opportunity.

IMPLICIT bias contests the naïve psychological understanding of social behaviour. According to this view, human action is guided by explicit beliefs and intentions - that is, we are consciously aware of what we think, and why we choose to act in certain ways.

Research into implicit cognition, on the other hand, suggests that our perceptions and judgements are not always under conscious control.

Thus many of our mental processes work implicitly - which is to say, they function without being the focus of conscious attention. Implicit memory, for example, shows that, even when you can't intentionally remember something, your behaviour - whether it's trying to find your keys or wondering why you distrust someone - may be guided by a previous experience.

"Implicit attitude", to take another example, suggests that our "evaluative dispositions" - to like or dislike, to give or withhold support - are not all at the conscious level.

More importantly, our unconscious attitudes do not always agree with our conscious commitments: psychologists have discovered significant differences between attitudes at the implicit and explicit levels, particularly with respect to marginalised groups. Human beings have a tendency to think they are more committed to ideals such as justice and equality than we are in practice.

Explicitly, few of us would own up to sexism or racism, or to thinking that the rich are more worthy human beings than the poor; nevertheless, when tested on the implicit level, we do.

CONSIDER the case of women. Even if you are not a self-proclaimed feminist, the chances are good that you take yourself to be committed to the idea that women deserve justice. Moreover, you believe that you behave in a way that promotes it.

That was certainly true for 238 male and female members of the American Psychological Association. Each was sent a CV - one of two versions from the same, real-life scientist, but whose name was shown as either a traditional male name or a traditional female one.

The participants in the study (Steinpreis, Anders, and Ritzke, 1999) , both men and women, rated the male applicant more highly than the female candidate, preferring to hire the male, considering his experience to be superior. It was identical.

Even highly qualified and successful women exhibit this bias. Marin Alsop, the first female conductor of a prominent US orchestra, and of the BBC's Last Night of the Proms, is a frequent flyer. But, if she hears the welcome "Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking" uttered in a female voice, she confesses to having a momentary reaction: "God, I hope she can fly the plane."

Her response is fleeting but real, and quickly overtaken by a secondary reaction: "Don't be ridiculous. Of course she can. She's had the training; she's just as good as anyone else," etc.

IN THE decade-and-a-half since that study of academic psychologists, the Implicit Project at Harvard University has collected data about the myriad ways in which our implicit beliefs diverge from our conscious ones.

It has consequences for discrimination against many marginalised groups. Both men and women frequently discriminate against women on the implicit level, even when their explicit commitments are at odds with such behaviour. Both rich and poor discriminate against the poor.

This is not the first time that humanity has been accused of self-deception. Jeremiah wrote: "the heart is deceitful above all things," and many thinkers since have attempted to untangle the confused workings of the human mind. But the clarity and the quantity of this empirical research is so overwhelming that many communities around the world are beginning to take note of implicit bias - and to ask what can be done about it.

So should the Church. If we, like the majority of humans, have discrepancies between our conscious and unconscious commitments, these may have damaging consequences for other members of Christ's body, and these need to be redressed.

The first step is to be aware that it is not only "bad" people who are unconsciously biased. We all have blind spots. But at least implicit-bias research, and the tools that have been developed from it, provide an opportunity to remove some logs from our eyes.

Kate Kirkpatrick is Instructor in Religion at St Clare's, Oxford, and the author of Women, Justice, and the Church: An Apology for Feminism (Grove Books, 2014).

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