concept of implicit bias — the idea that our minds operate on both a
conscious, rational level and on an unconscious, intuitive level — is
barely 20 years old but has already sparked a revolution in psychology,
Anthony Greenwald told an audience at the University of Delaware on
Although the mind’s unconscious or implicit mode is known as its
lower level, in many ways it’s in charge of our thinking whether we know
it or not and whether we want to believe it or not, he said.
“The lower level controls conscious perception, thought and
judgment,” Greenwald said. A professor of psychology at the University
of Washington and co-author of the book Blindspot, he also is co-creator of the Implicit Association Test, an online tool that allows individuals to try out the concept for themselves.
To demonstrate some of the science behind the idea of implicit bias,
Greenwald showed the audience visual and auditory illusions.
Two squares on a checkerboard, for example, appeared to be distinctly
different shades of gray, but once they were moved onto a single plain
background, the audience could see that the squares were actually
identical. Placed back on the checkerboard, they again looked very
It’s all about context and the way context tricks the brain into
seeing things in a certain way, Greenwald said. Most important, he said,
once a person knows that the two squares are identical in the
checkerboard illusion and tries to force his or her mind to see them
that way, they still look different.
“Concentrated mental effort to prevent the conscious level from being governed by the automatic [unconscious] level does not help,” he told the audience.
In fact, he said, overcoming implicit associations — for example,
associating negative words with older faces and positive words with
younger ones — is extremely difficult. Such approaches as attending
workshops and training sessions and resolving to be aware of implicit
biases, while possibly somewhat helpful, have not been shown by evidence
to reduce or eliminate such bias.
Greenwald noted that there are individual differences in the biases
we have, but he also said the problem is “pervasive in the culture.”
Good intentions, he added, are generally not enough.
“There are still important questions to be answered,” he said. “I think we’re about halfway through the ‘Implicit Revolution.’”
What can be done?
Greenwald noted that some remedies for implicit bias have worked in specific circumstances.
When musicians auditioning for an orchestra performed behind a screen
so that they couldn’t be seen, the number of women accepted for
employment increased significantly. And using detailed checklists in
decision-making, as surgeons and pilots do in their work, can help
reduce the intrusion of biases.
At universities seeking to overcome the effects of implicit bias, Greenwald offered some advice.
He urged faculty members to grade and evaluate student work without
identifying personal information and to emphasize mentoring. He
especially recommended looking for opportunities for “cross mentoring,”
or working with students from a different demographic than the faculty
As for students, he encouraged them to “take the role of responsible bystander.”
“When you observe behavior that looks discriminatory, call it out,” he said.
Implicit Bias Awareness Week at UD
Greenwald’s lecture launched a week of events
hosted by the College of Arts and Sciences’ Center for the Study of
Diversity (CSD) and designed to raise awareness of implicit bias on
The week included numerous workshops for faculty and staff, employee development classes and student-focused events.
In addition to the CSD, Greenwald’s lecture was sponsored by the
Office of the President, Office of the Provost, College of Arts and
Sciences and UD ADVANCE.
Article by Ann Manser; photo by Kathy F. Atkinson