Implicit Bias

Collins dictionary defines bias this way: Bias is a tendency to prefer one person or thing to another, and to favour that person or thing.

Implicit has a similar meaning as unconscious.

Implicit biases show up when our unconscious thoughts impact our words and actions quite automatically.

The Perception Institute says,

The mind sciences have found that most of our actions occur without our conscious thoughts, allowing us to function in our extraordinarily complex world. This means, however, that our implicit biases often predict how we’ll behave more accurately than our conscious values.

Let’s look at some examples.

Here’s a common riddle that was popular a few years ago:

A father and son get in a car crash and are rushed to the hospital. The father dies. The boy is taken to the operating room and the surgeon says, “I can’t operate on this boy, because he’s my son.” How is this possible?

Where did your mind go when you read this riddle? Did you get it right away, or did it take a second to realize that the surgeon was the boy’s mother? Or what if the surgeon was the boy’s other father, and his parents were in a same sex marriage?

This uncovers some possible implicit biases that we may have. Women today can choose many different careers. However, there is still significant gender imbalance in jobs in medicine, tech, engineering, as well as in leadership positions, etc. In Canada, women have, on average, about 15% of CEO jobs.

Consider a family where the father stays home with the kids. Do you think he might encounter bias if he chooses to get involved in daytime parent groups?

Many people still struggle with unconscious or conscious bias when it comes to same sex partnership and parenting. Consider how schools might speak to guardians and perhaps call them “moms and dads” not considering that some children might have two moms, or two dads, or maybe they are being raised by a grandparent or another family member.

Implicit bias regarding race is also very strong. This bias shows up in so many systemic ways, as we have covered in other parts of this training.

Below are some other examples of implicit bias:

  • Many people have a bias that in the field of medicine, men should be doctors and women nurses.
  • Another bias is that women are better in the arts and men in the sciences.
  • If you see a very tall Black male, does your mind think, “Wow! He must be a great basketball player?” What if he‘s lousy at basketball, and a gifted artist?
  • People with a mental health diagnosis can experience bias based on harmful, untrue stereotypes fueled by the media that unconsciously get stuck in people’s heads.
  • There can be a bias that people who live in cities are smarter than those who live in suburban or rural areas.
  • People in wheelchairs and others who experience physical disabilities face unconscious bias on a regular basis, as do people who are neurodivergent.

BIPOC (black, Indigenous, and people of colour) people and females are also likely to experience bias in the hiring process. There have been studies done in which the exact same resume was sent out with different names attached, and observing the responses of potential employers. According to the research,  resumes with traditionally white male names get the most attention and are more likely to be called back for an interview. Conversely, the names that appear BIPOC or female are more likely to be overlooked. Since the resumes are exactly the same, and, according to Workopolis, an employer spends about 11 seconds looking at a resume, this says that bias is the problem, not qualifications.

Similar biases show up in issues such as pay imbalances, promotions and leadership opportunities for BIPOC people and women.

It’s possible to acknowledge biases in certain areas of our lives but fail to notice them in other areas. It’s important to remember that:

  • Even the most progressive people have biases they are unaware of.
  • When we let go of the shame attached to having biases we have better capacity to deconstruct them.

For Reflection

  • What are some other examples of implicit bias we didn’t address here?
  • What are some of your own biases that you are aware of?
  • In recent months have you become more aware of some of your implicit biases?

How are Implicit Biases Formed?

So far, we’ve talked about how the brain organizes information into categories and containers. We also covered how our life experiences and the information we take in form our worldview and impact the way we approach other people and situations. These important methods of organizing information also create implicit biases.
When reflecting on implicit bias, keep the following in mind:

  • Implicit biases are unconscious
  • Implicit biases cause instant, automatic reactions rather than thoughtful, reflective responses
  • Implicit biases are deeply embedded and show up constantly in our everyday lives
  • Every human being has implicit biases–EVERYONE


Cambridge dictionary defines intuition as, “an ability to understand or know something immediately based on your feelings rather than facts.”

A gut-feeling, or a strong hunch is another way to define this. Intuition is a fast, automatic, unconscious processing style.

Intuition is commonly understood as a deeply learned expertise that we can unconsciously rely on. Consider someone who has extensive experience with technology. They can figure out a problem and fix it in almost no time. Intuition is like a gut feeling that helps us with decision making.

In the article “Gut Feel” or Unconscious Bias? When Should We Trust Our Intuition? by Dr. Jennifer Whelan, she states,

Gut feel is highly efficient, and it can be effective in situations where the problem is simple, well-understood, predictable, and static. So if it happens a lot, you have a high degree of expertise, and the existing solution is reliably correct, and the parameters never change, gut feel is efficient – go with it! However, if the problem is complex, poorly understood or new, or you’re trying to find a better solution, your gut is more likely to lead you astray. Your decision-making effectiveness will likely benefit from a more conscious, logical analysis. (2017)

The danger of relying on our unexamined intuition when it involves other people, is that we risk getting stuck in our biases without even realizing it. We think we are tapping into our expertise, but we are tapping into our unconscious biases. Consider the employer who spends 11 seconds reading a resume and “goes with their gut,” and chooses the white male candidate.

For Reflection

Can you think of some situations where intuition can bring up implicit bias?

Some Things we Can do to Bring Awareness to our Implicit Biases

“To have a biased belief often means to us that we are bad people. So many of us hold that. Those protections keep it out of our awareness or the risk is that we see ourselves as bad.”
~Kate Lingren (Clinical Social Worker & Activist)

  • Understand the nature of bias. Dig into why they exist. (Feel free to look back at the reasons we have covered in this module)
  • Notice when we have strong reactions.
  • Make unconscious biases conscious: talk about them
  • Continue to build self-awareness
  • Let go of the shame we often attach to having biases. Shame keeps us stuck and we become defensive. When we recognize it is normal to have biases, we create more space to acknowledge and consciously deconstruct them.
  • Get curious.
  • Seek out people who are different from you. Spend time in communities that are different from your own.
  • Seek out information that supports you to stretch your beliefs. Don’t fall prey to confirmation bias by only seeking out information that’s aligned with your pre-existing beliefs.
  • Don’t fall into stereotype-based thinking, even if it seems like a silly non-issue. Be cautious about jokes that rely on stereotyping certain people or people groups.
  • Seek out people who defy stereotypes.

For Reflection

What will you do to continue to unpack your implicit biases?



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Post-Secondary Peer Support Training Curriculum Copyright © 2022 by Jenn Cusick is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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