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Mindbugs: The Ordinary Origins of Implicit Bias

Implicit biases
September 2019

You may believe that you are free of stereotypes and biases, but your mind is home to thoughts and feelings that are outside of your awareness. These hidden attitudes, stereotypes and biases subtly impact our interactions with others, and they may influence your decisions about who to hire and to whom to lease to.

Jordan Axt drove this point home in his “Mindbugs: The Ordinary Origins of Implicit Bias” presentation at NAA’s Apartmentalize. Axt, who will soon be an Assistant Professor of Psychology at McGill University, also is Director of Data and Methodology for Project Implicit, a non-profit organization that studies the biases people have and are not aware of.

“Your mind is kind of like an island, and what is an island but a mountain with its top above water,” Axt says. “We want to put on scuba suits and dive beneath the water.”

Implicit biases can result from social conditioning and can cause people to feel positively or negatively about a particular race, gender or social group. Such subconscious feelings and attitudes can be “the consequences of not necessarily believing a stereotype but being exposed to it,” Axt says.

He outlined one way that researchers are exploring implicit bias by walking the audience through examples of Project Implicit’s Implicit Association Test. In one version of the test, participants are asked to match black and white faces with positive or negative words while the time it takes them to do so is tracked. If participants are faster at matching black faces with negative words and white faces with positive words, this can indicate an implicit bias against black people.

According to Axt, 81 percent of the test’s white participants have demonstrated a “pro-white” implicit bias. Other research has highlighted how being physically attractive can increase one’s chances of getting into an academic honor society and how a résumé with an African American-sounding name on it is 50 percent less likely to get a callback from an employer than one with a white-sounding name.

To counter the effects of implicit bias in hiring decisions, rental housing executives and managers “should focus less on changing [their] individual level of implicit bias and focus more on reducing the chance [their] implicit biases will be allowed to operate,” Axt says.

For instance, “We are most likely to show bias when the decision-making criteria is unclear,” Axt says. Consequently, a company should set clear, objective criteria for hiring and promotions in advance of the interview process. It should also create a system of “checks and balances” among team members involved in the hiring process.

Additionally, implicit bias is more likely to show when people make decisions while they’re stressed or in a hurry, Axt noted. Therefore, it’s imperative that hiring and other important decisions be made deliberately. “Restructure decisions to allow for ‘slow’ thinking,’ ” he says.

“Be vigilant and create practices with the idea that you are biased,” Axt says.