Unconscious discrimination

“… Thank you for your time and consideration. I look forward to speaking with you about this employment opportunity.


Vinary Ramaswamy”

This might look like the typical ending of an application letter for a job. But in fact, the salutation contributes more to the application than it is meant to. Ramaswamy is a typical Indian last name, and if Mr. Ramaswamy is not applying for a position in India, his chances of being invited for an interview are much lower than the chances of someone with a native sounding last name.

Our brains tend to categorize people into groups and a human resources manager reading Mr. Ramaswamy’s application will implicitly think about what he knows about Indians and add his stereotypes and prejudices to Mr. Ramaswamy’s application, because he is implicitly biased. But it is not only him, everyone possesses these implicit biases leading to unequal treatment in application processes as well as in many other situations in life.

But what does this mean? This article will cover the question, what implicit biases are, where we can observe them and finally, what we can do against their influence on us.

What are implicit biases?

Implicit biases are stereotypes that unconsciously affect our understanding and thus our decisions. These associations contribute an innate as well as a developmental factor. Evolutionary minded psychologists speak of the fear of the foreign, a past adaption, yet once a necessary tool for the survival of our ancestors. These associations are further shaped from an early age throughout life, due to experience, media and news. Research claims that implicit biases are defined by five characteristics:

1) They are pervasive*

2) They are related to explicit biases and can reinforce them or be reinforced by them, yet both stay a distinct mental construct

3) They are not necessarily congruent with our declared beliefs

4) We prefer to hold implicit biases that favour our own group

5) They are malleable

* You think you are free of any group specific prejudices? Discover your bias in an implicit association test developed by Harvard University.

The implicit bias influences information processing.

Unequal treatment is still a problem all over the world –
consciously and unconsciously. PixaBay (CC0 1.0) 

Levinson conducted a study investigating how people would remember facts from two different short stories. One of the stories told about a fight and another about an employment termination. The main characters’ race varied between subjects. The different story versions told legal cases about African Americans, Hawaiians and Caucasians.

When the participants recalled the facts of the stories, they systematically misremembered relevant story facts in a racially biased way. Participants reading the fight story, with African Americans or Hawaiians as main characters, were significantly more likely to remember aggressive actions from the fight, compared to those, who had read the same story involving Caucasians. Some participants, even misremembered the story, even though it was read less than an hour before. During the recall they told that the African American had engaged in aggressive behaviours, even though he had not.

What can we do about this?

Implicit biases are real. But can we eradicate them? And if so, how?

As Devine and her colleagues could show, debiasing-training can actual reduce implicit biases. They conducted a long-term study to reduce racial biases.

Assuming implicit biases are like a habit, they planned to reduce them by a combination of producing awareness of implicit biases, concern about the effects of the bias and the application of strategies to reduce the bias in a 12-week procedure. At the end of the experiment, participants who received the intervention showed dramatic reduction in implicit racial biases when compared to the control group. The greatest reduction was achieved by participants reporting that they had used the reduction strategies in their everyday-life. The development of their implicit bias was measured by the Black-White implicit association test, performed before the intervention, as well as 4 and 8 weeks after the manipulation.

But you do not need to take part in a study to reduce the influence of implicit biases in your life. On the individual level there are different approaches how to debias your thoughts. First, it can be very helpful to consider the opposite of your initial impression before making a final decision. Ask yourself: “Are there reasons why my initial thoughts could be wrong?” Second, explore your motivation. Ask yourself: “What are my reasons for these thoughts?” It is more likely that you put greater effort into your decision, if you prepare for explaining you reasoning to others.

Further, several studies showed that cross-group friendship decreases prejudice toward outgroup members. For example, participating in exchange programs or visiting multicultural festivals will reduce your tendency towards biased thinking.

How can we provide Mr. Ramaswamy the same chances as his native competitor?

Application procedures may focus only on the applicant’s skills. PixaBay (CC0 1.0) 

Everyone must work on his- or herself to stop implicit biases influencing our thoughts and decisions. But it is also the responsibility of our society to provide more equality. Examples of successful eradication of implicit biases can be seen in large orchestras, for example. In the 1970s the top five orchestras in the U.S. had fewer than 5% women. Then, the orchestras decided to use blind auditions. Applicants for the orchestras were sitting behind a curtain, when playing for a jury. This could successfully eradicate the gender bias. Even when the curtain was only used for the first application round, it got 50% more likely that a woman was hired. Nowadays, there are about 30% women playing in the top five U.S. orchestras.

Could this also help Mr. Ramaswamy? If we would conduct application processes in an anonymous way, excluding names, gender and photos from the CVs, his chances of being invited to an interview would increase. But being hidden behind a curtain cannot hide the gender, nor a possible accent. In the moment he shows up and talks, his outer appearance and possible accent would trigger the bias again, so the bias-problem still occurs.

Besides everyone working on him- or herself, a promising approach to finally get rid of the biased thinking is modern technology. Nowadays, computers help us with many complex calculations, leading to more accurate judgements. Algorithms, programmed to evaluate an application based on the person’s actual skills and not on gender, name or appearance, could make selection processes much fairer.

The optimal solution is not reachable without effort and self-reflection, but there is hope for eradicating implicit biases to provide Mr. Ramaswamy the same chances as everyone else, and we should all work on making the world fairer and more unbiased every day.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s