Changing Broader Social Stereotypes is Our Best Chance of Ending Implicit Bias

September 20, 2018

Educated and enlightened?  Chances are you’re discriminating and don’t even realize it.

“If you do nothing and just try not to discriminate, you’re going to discriminate,” explains B. Keith Payne, co-author with Heidi A. Vuletich of “Policy Insights from Advances in Implicit Bias Research,” published in the current issue of Policy Insights from the Behavioral and Brain Sciences.

In the paper, Payne and Vuletich define implicit bias as stereotypes and feelings that come to mind automatically whenever we think about social groups. Compared with explicit prejudice, which tends to be blatant and concentrated in areas where educational levels are lower, implicit bias impacts everyone–regardless of social or educational status.

“A Ph.D. is no more likely to be unbiased than someone with a high school education,” Payne says.  He explains that implicit bias comes not from the individual, but rather from the broader society or culture. Even individuals from different races who live in the same city are likely to discriminate in similar ways. In other words, putting more black police officers on the streets is not likely to curb police racism because the black and white police officers are all products of the same city and culture. They take in the same media and social cues that dictate how their society expects people to be treated.

Black and white Americans, however, do differ in their attitudes toward discrimination.  While studies show both groups agree that discrimination is on the decline, black people believe it remains a problem while more white people describe it as “extremely low”—some citing discrimination against whites as a bigger problem. The difference seems to be driven by the comparison groups, Payne explains. While white people tend to look at treatment of blacks over time, black people compare the way they are treated today to how they would be treated in a society that practiced true equality.  “We’ve progressed,” Payne says, “but we’re not close to equality.”

For most people, the tendency is to ask what we all can do to end inherent bias. But Payne explains that the burden is on the people making decisions. He and Vuletich offer several suggestions for those in decision-making positions:

  • Blind review: Hiding the race and gender of job applicants can help create accountability in hiring decisions. Payne cited one corporation that boasts hiring only candidates from Ivy League schools, which tend to overflow with affluent, white students. “Maybe a candidate from a non-Ivy League school has more relevant experience,” Payne says.  “Decision makers make trade-offs like this all the time.”
  • Visibility: When companies and organizations actively seek to hire and promote marginalized groups, they create “counter-stereotypical examples.” Seeing women and black people in charge can change leadership expectations across an organization.
  • Slowing down: As Payne explains: “anything that makes you not pay attention makes you fall back on what is easiest.”


In short, trying to change individual attitudes won’t end implicit bias. A more promising strategy calls for focusing on “the systemic inequalities that cue negative associations,” the paper explains.

Drawn from “Policy Insights From Advances in Implicit Bias Research” by B. Keith Payne and Heidi A. Vuletich from Policy Insights from the Behavioral and Brain Sciences.