Implicit Bias

An overview of “implicit bias” by the Equal Justice Society, based on “The Hard Science of Civil Rights: How Neuroscience Changes the Conversation,” by Kimberly Papillon, Esq. You can download a PDF containing both this overview and Ms. Papillon’s primer here.

If scientists could scan our brains when we see spiders or snakes, they would see that the area of our brains that focuses on fear, threat, anxiety and distrust is triggered or, as neuroscientists say, “activates.” This same area of the brain activates more when people see pictures of African American faces than when they see pictures of Caucasian ones, studies have found.  Remarkably, many of the people who have this reaction state they have no conscious bias or prejudice towards others. They have no idea that these reactions are going on in their minds.

In his bestseller, Blink, author Malcolm Gladwell writes about how people engage in rapid cognition based on “instantaneous impressions,” which can result in significant—albeit sometimes unintended—harms. As an example, Gladwell points to the 1999 killing of Guinean immigrant Amadou Diallo and the racial prejudices that led to his death. While the New York City police were attempting to question him, Diallo, scared and confused, reached for his wallet. The police assumed the wallet to be a gun and shot Diallo 41 times.

Neuroscience and the study of implicit bias let us peer into the human brain and unravel the mysteries of why we treat each other with such cruelty or with care, and what ultimately leads us to create policies designed to help or to hurt.

Implicit bias and class

Neuroscience can help us understand why we may have less concern and empathy for the welfare of certain groups of people. A part of our brain called the medial Prefrontal Cortex (mPFC) activates when we see someone as “highly human.” Likewise, that same part of our brain fails to activate when we dehumanize people. When we direct emotions such as pity and pride toward other people, we encode them in our brains as more human. Otherwise, they are relegated to a less human status in our minds, potentially leading us to create different policies for people who we see as less human.

A Princeton University study found that people can feel exclusively human emotions with much greater ease for people from non-stigmatized groups than for human beings who have been deemed socially unacceptable, such as the homeless. In the study, there was no indication that the participants knew that they had encoded homeless people as less than human.

Implicit bias and sexual orientation

Neuroscience also gives us insight into the ways we react to one another based on sexual orientation. A computerized test, called the IAT, measures implicit biases by prompting test takers to match a long list of words and images to different categories as quickly and accurately as possible. (IATs can be taken online at For the Sexual Orientation IAT, the test taker is given a list of negative and positive words like “terrible” and “glorious” along with pictures of same-sex couples and straight couples, both in wedding clothes. Then, the test taker is asked to match the words and pictures at top speed to the categories “Straight people and good” and “Gay people and bad.” The computer measures in milliseconds how long it took the test taker to match the words and pictures to these categories, as well as how many mistakes were made.

People who show higher levels of implicit bias toward same sex couples may also have involuntary physical reactions that can be measured through skin conductance response (SCR) tests, tracking the brief increase in the electrical currents that run through the skin.  Test takers may show higher SCR when they see pictures of same-sex couples standing next to each other or holding hands. Even more telling, as SCR levels increase, so does activation of a part of the brain called the insula, which activates when we feel aversion or disgust.

Implicit bias and race

The brain also has been shown to react in a biased way towards people of color. Studies have shown that specific areas of the brain, called amygdalae, activate when we feel fear, threat, anxiety and distrust. People with diagnosed phobias of spiders and snakes have significantly higher levels of amygdala activation when they view pictures of those fear triggers than when they view pictures of other predatory or ferocious creatures, such as tigers. A pioneering study showed a measurable increase in the activation of the amygdala when Caucasian participants viewed African American male faces versus Caucasian male faces. The level of amygdala activation correlated with how subjects performed on the Race IAT. Nationwide, 70 to 87 percent of Caucasians in the United States demonstrate bias against African Americans on the Race IAT.

In addition, studies have found that people tend to automatically associate African Americans and crime, sometimes to dire consequences.  According to studies like the “Shoot/No Shoot” test, created at the University of Chicago, they may even be willing to take severe action when the threat is an imagined reaction based on their implicit biases.

Implicit bias has an undeniable impact on our policies and decisions in the areas of criminal justice, employment, environmental justice, housing and more. If we believe that certain people are more frightening and dangerous, then we may want to create policies to protect ourselves from them. If we believe that certain people are more threatening, then we may be less willing to protect them from unjust laws. If we believe certain people are more likely to commit crimes, then we may want to build more jails and fewer schools to serve that population.

The hard science redefines the conversation surrounding civil rights. When we talk about disproportionate minority contact (the disproportionate number of minority youth who come into contact with the juvenile justice system), we must also talk about disproportionate amygdala activation. When we talk about disparate decision-making we must also talk about disparate medial Prefrontal Cortex activation.

Today’s civil rights leaders face a new challenge: to expose the subconscious and subtle forms of bias and fear that exist in us and of which we often are unaware.  If the law does not acknowledge the role of implicit bias and structural inequities, people challenging unfair policies or decisions have to prove the people responsible for them intentionally discriminated, which is a near impossible hurdle.  Implicit bias is often how discrimination reveals itself today. If we can understand how our brains work, we finally may be able to figure out how to conquer these biases and work together toward a fair and just society.

For more information on implicit bias, visit our Resources page.

2 thoughts on “Implicit Bias

  1. Pingback: International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination 2012 | Equal Justice Society

  2. Pingback: California Teachers Association – Blog » CTA remembers 50th anniversary of March on Washington

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