What Is “Implicit Bias” and Why Is It Everyone’s Problem?

what-is-implicit-bias-and-why-is-it-everyones-problem-1In the U.S. Presidential Debate last night, when asked if she believes police are implicitly biased against black people, Hillary Clinton responded: “I think implicit bias is a problem for everyone, not just police. I think unfortunately too many of us in our great country jump to conclusions about each other and therefore I think we need all of us to be asked the hard questions ‘why am I feeling this way?” Today’s headlines about the comment are generally negative, with the Washington Times declaring “Hillary Clinton calls the entire nation racist.” But for those of us with backgrounds in social psychology, that’s not what she said at all. Rather, Clinton’s comment reflects a fundamental psychological truth.

All people do have implicit biases, which is to say, automatic connections our brains make in microseconds to help us parse through a world of complex, rich data. What specifically those connections are depends on where you grew up and what culture you live in, perhaps even more so than what you believe. Back in 1989, Patricia Devine discovered that American participants, regardless of whether they were high or low in interracial prejudice, had racial stereotypes automatically activated in the micro-seconds after being exposed to racial stimuli (Devine, 1989). The difference was that non-prejudiced people “turned off” this automatic response almost immediately, while prejudiced people did not. Important takeaway: Implicit biases do not translate to behavior if the person overrides them.

As I mentioned, these sorts of instant reactions happen all the time. And they’re not always bad. My undergraduate advisor, Nalini Ambady, focused on what she called “thin slices” of behavior, seconds-long impressions of people, and found that you can come up with fairly accurate ideas about someone in many cases. For example, gut reactions to thin slices (under 30 seconds) of teachers on their first day of class correlated with their student evaluations at the end of the semester (Ambady & Rosenthal, 1993). Importantly, the people making the judgments based on thin slices weren’t influencing the teachers’ behavior; they watched video clips and never interacted with the teachers directly. It suggests that there is some validity in our very first impressions of people.

But, those first impressions are tied up in our cultural origins and contexts. In a series of studies, Margaret Shih and her colleagues showed that if you look at behavioral outcomes of stereotype exposure in different countries, the outcomes reflect the specific stereotypes, not some universal truth. In the US, Asians are stereotyped to be excellent at math. In Canada, they are not. Accordingly, Asian Americans reminded of their Asianness did better on a math test while Asian Canadians reminded of the same did worse (Shih, Pittinsky, & Ambady, 1999). Takeaway: The content of implicit biases varies based on who we are and what culture we belong to.

Psychologists have a computer test they can use to assess these implicit biases, called the Implicit Association Task (IAT; Greenwald, McGhee, & Schwartz, 1998). Studies using the IAT have found all manner of implicit biases related to race, sex, age, and culture, among other constructs (see Hardin & Banaji, 2013, for a review). The evidence is strong: We all have implicit biases.

So what Clinton was saying, from a purely psychological standpoint, was true. Implicit biases are a problem for all of us. What she was not saying, and what is not true, includes the following:

  • Everyone is racist; absolutely not. Racism and prejudice exist separately from implicit biases.
  • Everyone behaves in a racist way. Again, no. Evidence shows that people can override their implicit biases and behave in ways consistent with their values.

I loved that she added the bit about asking ourselves the hard questions about why we might feel the things we do, because that is at the heart of being able to exert that control over our implicit biases. The people who can tamp those down have worked to cultivate beliefs and attitudes that are different from the ones they’ve been exposed to in their culture. They’ve practiced behaving differently from what their knee-jerk reaction might be.

For many people, that process of learning something different from the implicit bias happened naturally through their parents, school, and friends. For others, it’s the result of hard work to outgrow outmoded prejudices.

For all of us, it’s a challenge.


Ambady, N., & Rosenthal, R. (1993). Half a minute: Predicting teacher evaluations from thin slices of nonverbal behavior and physical attractiveness. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 64(3), 431044-.

Devine, P. G. (1989). Stereotypes and prejudice: Their automatic and controlled components. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 56(1), 5-18.

Greenwald, A. G., McGhee, D. E., & Schwartz, J. L. (1998). Measuring individual differences in implicit cognition: the implicit association test. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74(6), 1464.

Hardin, C. D., & Banaji, M. R. (2013). The nature of implicit prejudice: Implications for personal and public policy. In E. Shafir (Ed.), The Behavioral Foundations of Public Policy (pp. 13-31). Princeton University Press.

Shih, M., Pittinsky, T. L., & Ambady, N. (1999). Stereotype susceptibility: Identity salience and shifts in quantitative performance. Psychological Science, 10(1), 80-83.