What is implicit bias?

Implicit bias is the indirect expression of prejudice or stereotyping in one’s response to members of a particular social group. Implicit bias is often unintentional, and it may be based on any aspect of a person’s social identity, from race or ethnicity to sexuality or nationality, or even arbitrary (i.e., minimal) group categories.

Implicit bias is believed to come primarily from our culture experience and knowledge—the information we absorb over a lifetime about how people from different groups are treated and interact with each other. Because the mind encodes everything we encounter, whether we agree with it or not, this information gets inside our heads and can then influences our own perceptions and judgments.

People often have some awareness of their implicit bias, even if it conflicts with their values and beliefs. Yet its effects on behavior are often difficult to detect and control, and expressions of bias can occur without our awareness or intention.

For more information on implicit bias and the social neuroscience of prejudice, see Amodio & Mendoza (2010) and Amodio (2014).

How is implicit bias learned? And how does it influence our behavior?

Humans learn in multiple ways, and multiple forms of learning contribute to implicit bias. We can consciously remember specific people, places, and events (episodic memory) or recall all kinds of general knowledge (semantic memory). We may have automatic associations between concepts that often go together (semantic associative memory), strong emotional associations (Pavlovian learning), approach/avoidance preferences (instrumental learning) or automatic behavioral reactions (habits). Each of these depends on different neural processes, and in everyday life, they usually work together to guide our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. And some of these memory systems can learn and function with little conscious thought—forming and influencing our behaviors without our awareness or intention. To understand these effects, we have proposed a memory systems model of implicit social cognition (Amodio, 2019).

Research in the Amodio Lab examines the role of different memory systems in the formation and expression of implicit bias. We have shown that implicit bias may reside in semantic associative memory, emotional memory (i.e., Pavlovian threat conditioning), and instrumental memory (Amodio & Ratner, 2011). Importantly, these memory systems influence our thoughts and actions in different ways. For example, implicit semantic associations may lead to stereotypical judgments, whereas implicit emotional bias is linked to anxiety and unfriendly nonverbals (Amodio et al., 2003; Amodio & Devine, 2006).

Moreover, we found that anxiety about the appearing prejudice selectively amplifies the activation of implicit prejudice but not implicit stereotypes (Amodio & Hamilton, 2012). Knowing how implicit biases are encoded in the mind and brain can help us predict the way it will influence behavior and inform ways to reduce its impact.