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Alcohol and Mental Health

Implicit Bias: What Is It and How Do We Reduce It

December 13, 2023
24 min read
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Reframe Content Team
A team of researchers and psychologists who specialize in behavioral health and neuroscience. This group collaborates to produce insightful and evidence-based content.
December 13, 2023
24 min read
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Certified recovery coach specialized in helping everyone redefine their relationship with alcohol. His approach in coaching focuses on habit formation and addressing the stress in our lives.
December 13, 2023
24 min read
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Recognized by Fortune and Fast Company as a top innovator shaping the future of health and known for his pivotal role in helping individuals change their relationship with alcohol.
December 13, 2023
24 min read
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Reframe Content Team
December 13, 2023
24 min read

In 1998, psychologists Mahzarin Banaji and Anthony Greenwald unveiled a groundbreaking Implicit Association Test (IAT) that claimed to tap into our subconscious mind, revealing hidden biases we might not even be aware of. The results? It turned out that many of us held biases that we never consciously acknowledged. 

Fast forward a few years, and this test transitioned online, becoming an internet sensation. The next few decades saw countless individuals diving deep into this introspective exploration, yearning for self-understanding in a world striving for acceptance and inclusivity.

Suddenly, everyone was fervently clicking away, anxiously awaiting the verdict: “Am I secretly biased?” “What do I do if I am?” “Am I fixable?” “What if my friends find out?” While implicit bias has a stressful side, it’s actually a natural part of how the brain works. Let’s explore it without judgment and see how we might be able to reduce it!

What Is Implicit Bias?

First things first: we need to define exactly what implicit bias actually is. We all have our behavioral patterns — the route we walk our dog every morning, that go-to smoothie flavor (strawberry-banana, anyone?), or the way we instinctively tie our shoelaces. Patterns simplify our lives and help us navigate our busy days. 

Implicit bias, in turn, refers to thought patterns that rise up automatically. You know those moments when you catch yourself thinking something and wonder, “Wait, where did that thought come from?” It could be a quick judgment about a stranger's outfit or an unexplained discomfort in a new setting. While we all love to believe we're unbiased, fair, and open-minded, the mind has its own quirks and jumps to conclusions without our conscious consent. That’s implicit bias in a nutshell.

Scientists define implicit biases as the subconscious beliefs or attitudes we have towards certain groups of people. Rather than forming as a result of our direct experiences, they're shaped by societal views, cultural exposure, and upbringing.

What's the catch? They can influence decisions in our daily lives, from the people we hire to the friends we make, without us even being aware of it.

The Hidden Life of the Brain

While we might not always realize it, our brain loves shortcuts. With so much information bombarding us every second, the brain uses shortcuts (known scientifically as “heuristics”) to process things faster. This means it often relies on past information or experiences. 

Think of the brain as a supercomputer that's always on the lookout for ways to streamline its processes. With the millions of bits of data it has to process every minute, it needs a way to navigate that doesn’t require constantly shifting into deep-dive mode that consumes attention and cognitive resources.

At the molecular level, heuristics are based on neural pathways — the connections formed between different parts of the brain. Every time we have a thought or a reaction, our brain fires a series of neurons in a particular sequence. The more often we have a specific thought or reaction, the stronger and more established that neural pathway becomes. It’s like walking on grass. The first time, we might not leave a visible trace; however, if we walk the same path repeatedly, pretty soon we’ll have a well-worn trail.

These constantly reinforced neural pathways can sustain and perpetuate our biases. If we're frequently exposed to a particular stereotype, that neural pathway becomes deeply ingrained, making the associated bias hard to shake off.

A Double-Edged Sword

The problem is, these shortcuts don’t always get us where we truly want to go. Over time, the constant exposure to stereotypes and cultural narratives forms neural pathways that reinforce these subconscious biases. 

Remember, it's not about you being a bad person or being intentionally unfair — it's just the brain trying to be efficient!

Implicit Bias in the Real World

Now that we have a solid grasp on the science behind implicit bias, let's dive into how it plays out in various contexts. There are many settings where it can crop up.

1. Workplace Woes

The workplace is often a melting pot of cultures, backgrounds, and personalities. With so much diversity, it should ideally be a place where meritocracy rules, leaving no room for biases. However, implicit biases, with their sneaky, subconscious nature, can seep into professional settings in various ways:

Hiring highs and lows. One of the first steps into any job is the recruitment process. While HR teams aim for a fair selection method, unconscious biases might lead to preferences for certain candidates over others. 

  • A recruiter might subconsciously be drawn to candidates who share similar hobbies, unknowingly overlooking equally qualified or even better-suited candidates.
  • Names on resumes can lead to biased views. A candidate with a name that's perceived as "foreign" might be unintentionally sidelined.

Performance and promotions. Even after joining, the dynamics of implicit bias might continue. Employees' accomplishments might be perceived differently. 

  • A quiet employee might be mistaken for lacking initiative or drive when, in reality, they might just be an introvert producing stellar results.
  • Sometimes, gender biases come into play. Women in traditionally male-dominated sectors might face hurdles in being perceived as equally competent or leadership-worthy.

Team dynamics and collaborations. The way teams function, collaborate, and communicate can also be influenced by implicit biases. Consider these scenarios:

  • Team members from particular backgrounds might be expected to have certain expertise. Think of the tech-savvy young intern or the seasoned employee expected to be a reservoir of company history.
  • During brainstorming sessions, some voices might be given more weight based on factors like seniority, gender, or even the loudness of one's voice, rather than the actual merit of ideas.

Feedback and growth opportunities. Career growth is often tied to feedback and learning opportunities. But here too, biases can play a part: 

  • An employee might be offered fewer opportunities to attend conferences or workshops based on unconscious beliefs about their commitment (consider working parents who might be mistakenly believed to be less available).
  • Feedback given to employees might be tinted by biases. Constructive criticism is crucial, but when influenced by bias, it can either be unfairly harsh or misleadingly lenient.

2. Healthcare Hurdles

When we're feeling under the weather, we trust medical professionals to provide the best care possible. However, implicit biases can creep into this space, too. 

Diagnosis dilemmas. Medical diagnoses are often complex and require a careful consideration of symptoms, patient history, and test results. But implicit biases can sometimes color these judgments:

  • A patient's complaints might be taken less seriously based on gender or age. For example, women's reports of pain have historically been underplayed or misattributed to emotional factors.
  • The same symptoms in patients from different racial or ethnic backgrounds might be interpreted differently due to preconceived notions about prevalence or susceptibility to certain diseases.

Treatment trajectories. Once a diagnosis is made, the treatment path is charted out. Here too, biases can rear their heads:

Patient-provider communication. The way healthcare providers communicate with patients is crucial for effective care. Yet, this interaction isn't always free of biases:

  • A provider might unknowingly offer more detailed explanations to patients they perceive as more educated or capable of understanding, while being more cursory with others.
  • Non-native speakers might experience biases in terms of perceived comprehension, leading to potential miscommunications or oversights in care.

Access and advocacy. Implicit bias doesn't just operate at the individual doctor-patient level. It can also impact broader healthcare systems and access:

  • Patients from certain backgrounds might face hurdles in being referred to specialists or receiving timely interventions.
  • Socioeconomic biases might lead to assumptions about a patient's ability to afford certain treatments, influencing recommendations.

3. Educational Environments 

Teachers play a critical role in shaping young minds. But sometimes, implicit biases can influence their expectations of students, leading to disparities in academic achievements with students from certain backgrounds being unintentionally overlooked or unfairly spotlighted. The influence of these biases on teaching methods, evaluation, and general student interactions can be more profound than we might initially realize.

Expectations and stereotypes. Teachers and educators often harbor certain expectations of their students, some of which might be tinged with biases:

  • Certain students might be viewed as naturally adept at particular subjects. For instance, Asian students might be expected to excel in math and science — a stereotype that can place undue pressure on them and inadvertently sideline others.
  • Gender biases can lead to skewed expectations (boys might be seen as better in sports or science, and girls in arts or humanities).

Classroom dynamics. The day-to-day interactions in a classroom are rife with interactions that can be influenced by implicit biases:

  • Teachers might unconsciously call upon certain students more frequently, believing them to be more knowledgeable or participative.
  • Discipline might be meted out unevenly, with some students receiving harsher punishments based on biases related to behavior expectations.

Evaluation and feedback. The way students are graded and given feedback is crucial in shaping their academic journey. However, implicit biases can sneak in here too:

  • A student’s work might be judged not solely on its merit but influenced by the teacher's biases related to the student’s capabilities.
  • Feedback, meant to guide and improve, might either be too lenient or critical based on preconceived notions of a student's potential or commitment.

Opportunities and resources. Beyond the classroom, students seek opportunities for growth in extracurricular activities, advanced courses, or support. Implicit bias can play a role in how these are allocated:

  • Some students might be encouraged more than others to take on leadership roles or join certain clubs based on biased views of their inherent capabilities.
  • Resources like additional tutoring or learning aids might be directed more towards certain groups, based on biases regarding who would benefit most.

4. Retail Realities

Ever felt like you were being watched a little too closely when browsing in a store? Or perhaps you felt a store assistant wasn't as helpful as they could've been? Implicit biases might be the underlying reason. Retail employees, like all of us, can harbor biases that influence their interactions with customers.

Customer service variance. Ever walked into a store and felt like you were either being ignored or monitored too closely? The treatment customers receive can be influenced by unconscious biases:

  • Employees might offer more assistance to certain customers, believing they are more likely to make a purchase, based on factors like clothing or age.
  • Conversely, some shoppers might be deemed suspicious or less likely to buy, leading to less assistance or even unwarranted surveillance.

Product recommendations. Salespersons often suggest products, upsells, or alternatives. How they steer customers can sometimes be based on implicit assumptions:

  • Assumptions about purchasing power can lead to suggestions for cheaper or more expensive items.
  • Biased views about tastes or preferences, influenced by factors like gender or ethnicity, might limit the range of products shown to a customer.

Promotions and bargaining. Who doesn’t love a good deal? But sometimes, the offers, discounts, or even the willingness to negotiate can be tinged with biases:

  • Some customers might be informed about ongoing promotions more readily than others, based on unconscious beliefs about who would be more interested.
  • In places where bargaining is common, initial price quotes or the willingness to negotiate might differ based on perceptions of the customer’s ability to pay or haggling skills.

Hiring and work dynamics. Implicit bias isn’t just about customer interactions. It can also influence the inner workings of retail, particularly in hiring and employee dynamics:

  • Hiring decisions might be influenced by biases about who would be a "good fit" for the store's image or customer base.
  • Within teams, tasks might be allocated based on stereotypes, such as assigning tech-related tasks to younger employees or thinking that certain genders are better at handling specific customer groups.

5. Justice and Judgments

The justice system is where we hope for fairness above all. We're raised to believe in the sanctity of the justice system, holding it as a paragon of fairness. Yet, from police interactions to courtroom decisions, implicit biases can sometimes steer outcomes. A defendant's background, appearance, or even accent might subconsciously influence judgments about their character or guilt. 

Jury selection and deliberation. Juries are an embodiment of community participation in justice. However, the selection process and subsequent deliberations can be influenced by implicit biases:

Attorneys and arguments. Lawyers play a pivotal role in shaping the narrative of a case. How they present facts, question witnesses, and build arguments can be tinged by unconscious biases:

Witness credibility and testimonies. A testimony can make or break a case. But how a witness is perceived can sometimes deviate from the pure content of their statement:

  • Witnesses might be deemed more or less credible based on factors like their speech patterns, attire, or cultural background.
  • The weight given to a testimony might fluctuate based on implicit assumptions about the witness's honesty or reliability.

Judicial decisions and sentencing. Even judges, with their rigorous training and commitment to impartiality, are not entirely insulated from implicit biases:

  • Sentencing might vary based on unconscious perceptions of a defendant's general character or their likelihood to reoffend.
  • Judges might interpret evidence or the severity of a crime differently based on implicit beliefs about certain societal groups or the nature of the crime.

Cracking the Code

Why should we care about implicit bias? Simple: our actions, choices, and judgments shape our lives and the world around us. By understanding and addressing our subconscious assumptions, we can foster a more inclusive, empathetic, and understanding environment. Here are some steps to help you recognize and reduce those sneaky implicit biases:

  • Awareness is the key. Knowledge is power! Simply being aware of your implicit biases is a massive step forward. Consider tools like the Harvard Implicit Association Test (IAT) to get a sense of where your biases might lie.
  • Broaden your circle. Engage with diverse groups of people. This could mean joining a book club, taking a dance class, or volunteering. By having various experiences with people from different backgrounds, you help retrain your brain to see past stereotypes.
  • Stay curious. When you catch yourself making a snap judgment, get curious. Ask yourself why you might feel that way. Often, by merely acknowledging these thoughts, you can dispel their power.
  • Media diet. Consume diverse media. Read books, watch movies, and listen to podcasts from a variety of cultures and perspectives. It’s a fun and enlightening way to challenge your brain's current narrative.
  • Positive affirmations. Research shows that positive affirmations about other racial or ethnic groups can help counteract biases. So, maybe instead of your regular morning mantra, occasionally include some positivity about a culture different from your own.
  • Challenge and discuss. If someone around you says something that's rooted in bias (even if they don’t realize it), challenge them in a non-confrontational way. Encourage open discussions about biases in your social and professional circles.
  • Continual learning. Implicit bias is a continual journey. Attend workshops, seminars, or online classes on implicit bias. The more you learn, the better equipped you'll be to counteract these biases.

Wrapping Up

You’ve got the tools, you’ve got the enthusiasm, and now you’re primed to make a positive change! Tackling implicit bias is about creating a brighter, more inclusive world — and that’s something worth striving for. So, here's to understanding our brains a little better and making sure our quick judgments don't run the show. Go on, challenge that inner narrative and make the world a little better!

Summary FAQs

1. What is implicit bias, and how is it different from explicit bias?

Implicit bias refers to the subconscious beliefs or stereotypes that influence our decisions and actions, often without our direct awareness. Unlike explicit bias, which is conscious and intentional, implicit biases are automatic and deeply ingrained, often shaped by societal exposure and experiences.

2. How did the concept of implicit bias come into popular knowledge?

The concept gained traction after the 1998 Implicit Association Test (IAT) by Banaji and Greenwald. This test allowed people to gauge their biases by measuring their reaction times in associating categories, leading to heightened public interest and awareness.

3. Why does our brain rely on such shortcuts or biases?

Our brain is a master of efficiency. Given the vast amount of information it processes daily, it often uses shortcuts, known as heuristics, to make quick judgments. While this is evolutionary beneficial, it can sometimes lead to biased decisions when these shortcuts are based on societal stereotypes or past experiences.

4. Are certain sectors more prone to the effects of implicit bias?

Implicit bias is pervasive and can manifest in various sectors, including workplaces, healthcare, education, retail, and the justice system. While the expression of these biases might differ across fields, no domain is entirely immune.

5. How does implicit bias affect healthcare outcomes?

In healthcare, implicit biases can influence diagnosis accuracy, treatment recommendations, patient-provider communication, and even resource allocation. This can lead to disparities in care quality and health outcomes for different patient groups.

6. In what ways can implicit biases seep into the classroom or educational environments?

Educational settings might witness biases in the form of skewed teacher expectations, classroom dynamics, evaluation methods, and even in the allocation of opportunities and resources. These can affect student performance, self-esteem, and overall educational experiences.

7. What proactive steps can we take to reduce the influence of implicit bias in our decisions?

Awareness is the first step. Engaging with material on the subject, reflecting on our actions, undergoing training or workshops, and fostering open dialogues can help. Also, specific sectors are adopting mechanisms like blind procedures and checks and balances to mitigate the impact.

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