Working Through Our Implicit Biases

by Tessa Charlesworth, for Leadership 2020 (copyright)

I research implicit intergroup biases and prejudices across the age span, and yet every day I experience at least one moment where my own biases trump my well-meaning conscious efforts. I am prone to negative self-stereotyping because of my gender, because of my age, because of my image, yet I am also sadly prone to stereotyping others because of their gender, race, age, or culture. How is that I can know so much about my biases and yet still be shocked by their presence? That is, in fact, the scary thing about implicit biases – by their very nature, implicit biases are outside the realm of easy cognitive control and therefore remain in our “blind spots”.

Such a depressing perspective of the “perennial implicit bias” would seem to suggest that we could never be wholly tolerant individuals, equal in our acceptance of all groups and social categories. In some senses, this may be the case: our brains seem to be wired to express “out-group” threat responses in evolutionarily old brain regions like the amygdala; and early implicit biases are strongly predictive of biases and discrimination across the lifespan. Thankfully, however, the fact that our implicit biases are pervasive does not mean that they dominate our cognitions or behaviours, nor does it mean that they are entirely static.

This brief essay will consider how we can reduce, or more appropriately “work through”, our implicit biases. It is not about suppressing, erasing, or eradicating your biases out of shame and embarrassment. Rather, it is about monitoring, evaluating, and updating your assumptions and beliefs about another individual, group, or culture, with the ultimate goal of engaging in mindful intergroup knowledge-sharing and friendships. This is part of Leadership 2020’s aim to enhance cultural agility and humility.

In the early 2000s, amidst the global conflicts peaking after the 9/11 attacks and “wars on terror”, Ang and colleagues (2003, 2011) proposed a theory of “cultural intelligence” in order to account for individual differences in cultural competency, flexibility, and intercultural success. Within their framework of cultural intelligence, the authors suggested a central linking element of “cultural metacognition” (CM) which involves: (1) awareness of cultural assumptions; (2) monitoring and updating those assumptions before, during, and after cross-cultural interactions; and (3) planning for future interactions. Although it speaks explicitly to how we are able to ensure positive contact and efficacy across cultural differences, it can be extended to include efficacy across a wide variety of differences (based on income, job, age, gender, race, etc.). In fact, the “metacognitive” abilities implied by CM can also be seen as general abilities in mindfulness and awareness.

Following the conceptualization of CM, numerous authors began to investigate the mechanism of how CM leads to cross-cultural success (including in negotiation, adaptability, and creative collaboration). One of the more convincing proposed mechanisms was that of “affect-based trust”, or the feelings of reciprocity and mutuality between two groups or individuals. Specifically, a team of researchers from Harvard and Columbia Business Schools led by Roy Chua found that the power of CM “flowed through” affective trust. Without both affect-based trust and CM, cross-cultural teams showed poor creative collaboration success.

Although this study doesn’t seem to be immediately related to our discussion of how to reduce implicit biases, it does, in fact, reveal a very potent way of regulating our biases so that we can achieve positive outcomes (both in terms of productive successes and friendship potentials). The study shows that, if we engage in metacognitive processes of awareness, and flexibility about our assumptions, we can engender intergroup trust. This trust, in turn, will help to combat our implicit anxiety responses (like those I alluded to earlier that arise in the amygdala), and reduce our nonconscious prejudices. Ultimately, this trust and metacognition will establish productive relationships that will then further reduce our stereotyping about out-group ignorance or incompetence.

In sum, our implicit biases may be our perniciously ubiquitous friends but they also offer the opportunity to engage in intergroup learning: they can inspire us to engage in “metacognition” and “trust” that will beneficially result in intergroup friendships, collaborations, and acceptance.

A praxis framework for working through implicit biases

STEP 1: Become aware of your biases

  • Take implicit association tests on Harvard’s Project Implicit
  • Discuss with a close friend, colleague, or family member what they see as your “blind spots”. Try your very best not to get offended (maybe do this while munching on a nice piece of dark chocolate so that your “happy hormones” are engaged…)
  • Practice personal reflection, meditation, or journaling

GOAL: Establish “cultural metacognition”

STEP 2: Mindfullly engage in interactions that may help to update or disconfirm the biases

  • Participate in programs like L2020 and reach out to those who seem to have very different views from your own perspective. Have personal conversations.
  • Read books or articles written by authors with different perspectives, cultural or historical backgrounds. Watch documentaries about different opinions, or films produced from different viewpoints

GOAL: Establish “affect-based trust”

STEP 3: Plan for future interactions

  • Continue to think about or journal about your experiences: how have your assumptions changed? How have they stayed the same? What has been most helpful in working through your biases? How can you continue to support these experiences?
  • Schedule further conversations with friends or colleagues from different perspectives. Perhaps do a project together, watch a new cross-cultural film together, or start a cross-cultural book club.

GOAL: Create a loop between “cultural metacognition”, “affect-based trust”, and “intercultural success” that is continuously sustained

Further reading:

Ang, S, Van Dyne, L, & Tan, ML (2011) Cultural intelligence, In R. J. Sternberg & S. B. Kaufman (Eds.), The Cambridge Handbook on Intelligence (pp. 582–602). New York: Cambridge University Press.

Chua, RYJ, Morris, MW, & Shira, M (2012) Collaborating across cultures: Cultural metacognition and affect-based trust in creative collaboration, Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 188: 116-131.