WEST Wisdom Blog

How to interrupt the implicit bias feedback loop

Posted by Diana K. Anderson on Oct 15, 2019 5:02:00 PM
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It’s impossible not to have implicit bias—and that doesn’t make you a bad person. 

Just a human being. Also known as unconscious bias, it is exactly that, unconscious. You’re not aware of it. We’ve been talking about unconscious bias for a while now; but being aware of the concept is only the first step. Only after acknowledging that we all have implicit bias, can you disrupt it. And unpacking implicit bias is like brushing your teeth. You’ll need to keep doing it for the rest of your life; but staying on top of it makes it easier and far more effective.


Unconscious bias is your brain creating a mental shortcut.

We all have implicit bias because it is the human brain trying to be more efficient. When you see an image repeatedly, you unconsciously create a mental shortcut between that image and the circumstances and your feelings that accompany it. Chris Haigh, a diversity and inclusion consultant, compares the process to walking. As a toddler, learning to walk is the most difficult thing we’ve ever done. But later, as able-bodied adults, we do not even think about how to walk. We just move in the direction we choose.


Implicit bias is both a contributor and a product of its social aggregate.

After acknowledging our own internal implicit bias, Haigh says that the next step is to look beyond ourselves at how the aggregate of our biases influence our social structures. Then we can accept the role of implicit bias in social inequities. 

For a deep dive into implicit bias, Haigh suggests reading the Kirwan Institute’s Implicit Bias Reviews. The preface to the 2017 report, lists five characteristics of implicit bias.

Key Characteristics of Implicit Bias

  1. Unconscious and automatic: They are activated without an individuals’ intention or control.
  2. Pervasive: Everyone possesses them, even those avowing commitments to impartiality. 
  3. Do not always align with explicit beliefs: Implicit and explicit biases are generally regarded as related but distinct mental constructs. 
  4. Have real-world effects on behavior: ...Significant research has documented real-world effects of implicit bias across domains such as employment, education, and criminal justice, among others.
  5. Are malleable: The biases and associations we have formed can be “unlearned” and replaced with new mental associations.

    —Kirwan Institute, 2017 State of the Science: Implicit Bias Review

Implicit bias can be unlearned.

Characteristic #5, malleability, is key. Unlearning implicit bias starts by identifying a specific bias and its impact. Then, you consciously reprogram that unconscious mental shortcut. Haigh notes that unlearning implicit bias is a continuous process that requires intention and must occur at the individual and societal levels. 


You can interrupt the feedback loop of individual and societal implicit bias.

Although creating a culture of acknowledgment is key, Haigh observes that for now, interrupting bias is on us as individuals. We need to go beyond diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) workshops and make interrupting implicit bias part of our personal development. In fact, many aspects of interrupting bias, such as self-awareness, empathy and the ability to have difficult conversations are all part of developing our emotional intelligence (EQ)

Ready to do this? Join WEST for a workshop on interrupting bias led by Chris Haigh. We will define bias, understand where it comes from, reflect on our own biases, and examine strategies for interrupting bias in ourselves and others. 

Click here to sign up!

Topics: Events, Communication, Emotional Intelligence, Developing Your Skills, Self-Awareness, Empathy, Bias, Inclusion, Women in Business, Be Fearless, Be Brave, D&I

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