Research completed by the University of Oxford, and recounted in an article from the April issue of Women’s Health Magazine found that our brains are wired to make snap judgements – especially those that identify people who look different than ourselves as danger or potential threats. The studies authors suppose that this is because of a long-ago evolved function of the amygdala to stimulate a fear response. Constantly defending territories from invasion conditioned people to instantly categorize anyone they came in contact with as a friend, or a foe who might try to steal their food or shelter. In present day, this part of the brain might make people more likely to form automatic judgments of others based on their appearance, or previous experiences- equating obesity with laziness, a certain race with danger, or a way of dressing with potential theft. Luckily, another part of the brain called the neocortex has evolved to help override these biased and often stereotypical knee-jerk responses. It identifies times when your fear center’s reaction may be in conflict with your overall life ideology, and works to form it into a socially and morally acceptable response.
For example, an older woman may unconsciously tuck her purse more tightly under her arm when passing by a group of teenagers with tattoos when she is not actively thinking like a grandmother. This is the amygdala’s auto-response that occurs most often when people are tired or distracted, and don’t have any excess cognitive energy. In this case, her implicit bias caused her to have a physical reaction, and while it can be very hard to unlearn implicit biases, social neuroscientists have found that it is much easier to reshape these beliefs, and minimize their unwanted effects on our behavior. While people may not be as able to control a spontaneous emotion, they can be very effective at controlling any actions resulting from them. Scientists recommend treating your snap judgements as an addiction, and actively subbing out egalitarian thoughts each time your recognize a stereotype or negative association -this weakens the negative association over time. Studies have found that when a group of people viewed a homeless person, and instead of thinking of his or her soiled appearance, they thought about the types of vegetables the person might like to eat, that the negative reaction was completely shut down and replaced by thoughts of common goals and needs. Another strategy is thinking of yourself as part of the same team as the group you have negative associations with. Studies have shown that when people of different racial and ethnic groups were put on teams, their automatic prejudices were thwarted in favor of group camaraderie.
All in all, the researchers found that implicit bias and knee-jerk reactions were the worst in people who insisted they did not have any implicit bias, were unaware of what biases they held, and made no effort to correct them. While having stereotypical thoughts is undesirable for most, the true measure of a person is how they put these thoughts into action. By acknowledging that everyone has the capacity for bias, and actively working to negate the biases when we notice them, this is the surest way to eliminate them from our lives.
Curious what implicit biases you might have? Pop on over to Harvard’s Implicit Project page. It contains evaluations of your implicit beliefs on race, gender and career, sexual orientation, and mental health. At the end, you can submit your responses to further the research, or you can choose to simply use the information to be aware of your own thoughts, and work towards modifying them to be in line with the ideology you want to live by.