How are Your Biases Affecting Your Thinking?


“I’m not prejudiced,” you might say. Surprisingly, however, you may harbor unconscious biases that affect how you treat others, make decisions and do your job.

Hidden Biases Are All Around

Biases, which are closely linked to prejudices and stereotypes, are often learned early in life and become ingrained in our thinking. Without deliberate effort, it’s hard to change such biases. Research has shown that, even when we think we’re clear of them, their effects can linger in our minds, causing us to act in accordance with them, despite whether that’s the sort of person we claim to be—or even want to be.

Stereotypes and prejudice, whether outright or hidden, affect us both as individuals and as a society. They may influence how people speak to one another, how teachers teach the various students in their classrooms and how a jury rules on a case. Underlying attitudes can affect which people are hired for jobs, as interviewers are less composed and demonstrate less receptive body language when interviewing minority applicants. Hidden biases may be especially likely to rear their heads in times of stress, which could affect the decision that a police officer makes in regard to a suspect in the heat of the moment.

Bias also has a tendency to perpetuate bias. Television programming that leans heavily toward mostly-white casts can transmit racial bias to children, even in households that don’t lean toward such a bias. And people who live under the shadow of a stereotype may begin to act in accordance with it. For example, research has shown female students’ math performance will lag after being reminded that women are typically considered unskilled at math.

Uncovering Hidden Biases

You might not want to be prejudiced, you might even deny that prejudice is at work in your life or in society, but hidden biases probably still remain. Fortunately, bias isn’t exactly the same as prejudice, which involves an intentional, acknowledged approval of negative attitudes toward particular groups of people. Nonetheless, even if you don’t consciously approve of these underlying attitudes that you possess, they can still affect your behavior. Ignoring them in hopes that they won’t surface is an unrealistic plan, but by uncovering your biases through self-examination, you can be intentional about overcoming them.

To help people in this pursuit, a group of scientists began Project Implicit, an organization dedicated to studying hidden biases and raising public awareness of them. The Public Implicit website offers a number of Implicit Attitude Tests that can reveal users’ hidden biases. Topics covered include weight, gender, religion, race and sexual orientation, among others.

Adjusting Implicit Attitudes

Uncovering hidden biases is only the first step in dealing with them. Fortunately, although biases can sneak into your life, once you are aware of them, you have the power to adjust them. For starters, just being cognizant of a negative attitude can be enough to start the adjustment process. Additionally, examining yourself to uncover the origin of these attitudes can also be a powerful tool in the rectification process.

After taking a test, make a plan for how to tackle the attitudes that you don’t want to possess. Start by decreasing your exposure to people and media that encourage your initial biases, such as television programs that regularly garner their laughs by playing on common stereotypes. In addition to removing some influences from your life, it is also important to increase your exposure to opposing viewpoints through both media and personal interactions. Learning more about other people and intentionally choosing to show kindness to those who are different from you can, over time, boost your perception of others and chip away at long-held underlying biases.