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Understanding implicit bias, and why it affects kids

Two young children play lego blocks together.

We all want the best for our kids. But when someone makes assumptions about your child before knowing them, it may negatively impact them. And the reality is we all make judgments and assumptions about people to some extent even when we don’t want to. To better understand why and how this happens let’s play a simple game.

First, look at these words:  

  • Sodapop
  • Cake
  • Animal
  • Tree
  • Fruit

Now, what images popped into your head about them? When you thought about soda did you picture something general or a brand name like Coke, Pepsi or Fanta? Was there a specific animal you thought about like a dog or cat? Were you surprised by what images came to you in your mind? Did you have any associated feelings too?

This exercise highlights our tendency to make automatic associations. Automatic associations are what the brain does naturally to make sense of our extremely complex world. Information is coming at us all the time. If the brain didn’t organize and categorize it in some way, we would be overwhelmed. 

Society and our experiences help shape these associations over time. For example, if you grow up in Miami, Florida, you may automatically think of a palm tree when seeing the word, “tree,” but that would not likely be the case for someone born and raised here, in the Midwest. Companies have learned to take advantage of this process and spend billions of dollars on advertising to make sure we develop positive automatic associations about their products. And it turns out, it is pretty easy to shape our associations even when we don’t realize it is happening. 

So, then what happens when we have these automatic associations about people? Let’s do another exercise to find out. Consider the following words:  

  • Teacher
  • Concert pianist
  • Doctor
  • Professional Basketball Player
  • Nurse

First, you will recognize these are all occupations. But what type of person did you picture with each? What gender, race, ethnicity, or age popped into your head? Were you surprised? The automatic attitudes, beliefs and stereotypes that drive our preference for or avoidance of particular groups of people has a special name: implicit bias.

Understanding implicit biases

  • Everyone has them.
  • They are “implicit” because they are unconscious and outside of our awareness.
  • They begin developing very early and are shaped not only by personal experiences, but by direct or indirect influences from society such as media or news outlets.
  • Implicit biases are often in direct opposition to conscious beliefs and values a person may have. For example, you may strongly believe that anyone can be successful in any career, but you still may have an automatic and negative reaction when the nurse who comes into the exam room is a man. 

Implicit bias about gender is common but so is implicit bias about race and ethnicity. And while these biases are unconscious, they often result in discriminatory practices. For example, the report, Race and Punishment: Racial Perceptions of Crime and Support for Punitive Policies (Ghandnoosh, 2014) highlights how white people typically “overestimate the proportion of crime committed by people of color, and associate people of color with criminality.” Further, media and news stories contribute to this discrimination when reporting on crime by over-representing people of color as suspects while white people are more often portrayed as victims (Ghandnoosh, 2014). This has led to disparities in how white people vs. people of color are treated in the criminal justice system. 

In health care, implicit bias can impact how well a patient trusts and values the advice of his/her physician, which in turn contributes to ongoing racial and ethnic disparities in health care. For example, research has consistently shown that high implicit bias in white physicians is associated with differences in communication and behaviors toward patients of color, even when other factors such as socioeconomic status are controlled. These differences have been associated with decreased trust of physicians and the medical system by patients of color (Penner, Blair, Albrecht, & Dovidio, 2014). 

How implicit bias affects kids.

Your child is affected by implicit bias every day. Whether it’s how racial or ethnic groups, genders, or ages are shown in movies, talked about in school or at home, or even not talked about, kids are receiving messages about themselves or other people all the time, and this can affect how they relate to others and how their own self-esteem develops. For example, a young girl who wants to become a firefighter when she grows up may have less confidence in her ability to do this if her friends tell her she can’t have this career because, “girls aren’t strong enough to be firefighters”, or if she has never seen or read about a female firefighter in books, movies, or on TV.

Steps to decrease implicit bias 

Adapted from the work of Drs. Jennifer Eberhardt, Patricia Devine, Gabriele Oettingen, and Peter Gollwitzer. 

Because these biases and stereotypes are automatic and unconscious, and because practices in American society that underly systemic racism maintain these biases, they can be very hard to break. However, there are some things that we can do to reduce the likelihood that our implicit biases hijack our behaviors towards others.  

  1. Recognize no one is blind to differences in others. Even infants prefer faces that look like theirs. This does not make you bad, it just makes you human! 
  2. Focus on you. Think about why you would like to make changes. 
  3. Keep at it. Inside of you: what gets in the way? For example, it is common to feel afraid of what others might think. 
  4. Imagine how you would think, feel, and act when you come up against these challenges. 
  5. Make a plan. What will you do if you find yourself thinking, feeling, or acting out stereotypes or attitudes towards others? How could you tell if you are not meeting your goals (e.g., facial expressions of those around you, coworkers that shrink from the conversation)? Try to slow the situation down so you can think about ways to get yourself back on track. For example, you could think about your values and imagine how the other person feels, you could look at a picture of someone that inspires you, or remind yourself about a time that you stood up for others and how that felt. 
  6. Remind yourself of your plan daily. Think about it before you go into situations that you know will be risky (e.g., family reunions or hanging out with friends, working with a group of people different from you, etc.).
  7. At the end of each day, think about whether you met your goal. If you did, congratulate yourself! If you did not, think about why. We all make mistakes. If you can apologize, do so, and focus on what you can do better next time.  
  8. Adjust your plan based on what you learn along the way. Keep trying. 
  9. Find a friend or a group of coworkers and pledge to make changes together. It is easier when we have friends to help keep us motivated.  
  10. Spend more time with people that are different from you. Implicit bias decreases as our
    experience with different people increases.     

References:

  1. Ghandnoosh, N. (2014). Race and punishment: Racial perceptions of crime and support for punitive policies. Sentencing Project.

  2. Penner, L. A., Blair, I. V., Albrecht, T. L., & Dovidio, J. F. (2014). Reducing racial health care disparities: a social psychological analysis. Policy insights from the behavioral and brain sciences, 1(1), 204-212.

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Child Psychology

Child Psychologist; Clinical Assistant Professor of Pediatrics, University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Medicine

Clinical Psychologist