Columns, Opinion

Let Your Hair Down: Implicit biases shape our behavior in ways we don’t realize

In a society so deeply saturated with rapid communication and immediate access to the media, we often absorb information that we may not realize affects us. What we see online, what we view on television and what we hear in conversations with friends subconsciously shapes our assumptions. 

We draw on what we have been directly and indirectly exposed to in order to build expectations for how the world around us works; this is in fact how we function.  

In order to make speedy decisions in everyday life, we rely on what is called our implicit bias. Implicit biases are like shortcuts in our heads that come out of ordinary mental functioning — they affect our behavior in indirect yet important ways. In a nutshell, an implicit bias reaches into a collection of an individual’s past experiences and uses them to interpret situations, pass judgments and create associations.

Everything from what we have overheard standing in line for a coffee down to the microinteractions of our everyday lives has informed our implicit biases. This tool is actually quite resourceful, enabling us to form connections across various contexts. 

Implicit bias is different from our conscious decisions or opinions and it is challenging to be completely aware of the ways our implicit bias affects how we behave.  

To an extent, our implicit bias acts as a sort of fog we have been breathing in our entire lives; it can easily be clouded and misguided. But how does this impact society on a deeper level?

We get our information from the media and the environment around us. We are also susceptible to influence through the transmission of nonverbal messages between generations like mannerisms and traditions we gain from our families. 

These factors can easily play a role in perpetuating unsound beliefs about people, particularly impacting the way we attach labels to different categories of people without even realizing it.

The dilemma lies in how our implicit biases may be built on social frameworks of passive racism and prejudice in ways that often slip through the cracks of everyday life. The material we take in each day does in fact affect our behavior and much of it is loaded with suggestive racism and built on a foundation of inequality. 

Take the multi-billion dollar franchise of the glorious Harry Potter series for example, which people from all over the world have come to love and admire. The films run for a total of 1,207 minutes and only six minutes have people of color speaking, even though there are twelve somewhat notable characters played by actors of color in the Harry Potter films.

This type of white supremacy is woven into an overwhelming amount of the media we are subjected to throughout our lives. Being that the U.S. is becoming a majority-minority country, the lack of colored representation and the stigmas still attached to different races in our society is deeply concerning. 

The implicit biases we adopt through what we face exposure to differs from biases racism. Implicit bias is not to suggest that everyone is racist, but rather that our behaviors may be impacted by aspects of society that feed this suggestive racism. We can still consider ourselves open-minded and be passionate about equality while continuing to unknowingly perpetuate a bias toward different races and minorities. 

This phenomenon is seen across multiple platforms. According to a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, nonwhite people are less likely to be prescribed strong pain medication than white people for equivocal medical circumstances. Unconscious stereotypes about people of color can play a dangerously harmful role in our world. 

The question comes down to how accountable should we be for our implicit bias? If it is manipulated by our surrounding environment and operating in our subconscious, can we really prevent being impacted in some way? 

The only potential remedy seems to be our use of self-awareness and reflection on the things that shape our choices — and then, we may still fall subject to our assumptions. 

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