What is implicit bias?

Implicit bias is the indirect expression of prejudice or stereotyping, often in one’s response to members of a particular social group (Greenwald & Banaji, 1995, 2017). Implicit bias 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 likely reflects a combination of personal sources, such as one’s own prejudices and intergroup goals, and societal sources, such as the information we absorb over a lifetime regarding how people from different groups are treated and interact with each other (Devine, 1989).

People may have awareness of their implicit bias, whether or not it conflicts with their values and beliefs. Yet because implicit bias is expressed indirectly (i.e., it is implied in other actions), its effects on behavior are often difficult to detect and control.

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

Why study implicit bias when so much prejudice is explicit?

“Implicit bias” doesn’t just refer to prejudices that are subtle or unconscious, as emphasized in much early work (including our own). It refers more broadly to the ways a prejudice is expressed indirectly in individual behavior, organizations, and social systems. That is, implicit bias concerns the psychological mechanisms through which prejudice influences behavior and through which bias is communicated between an individual and social structures. From this perspective, the study of implicit bias is indeed critical for understanding and addressing the overt prejudices that persist today.

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 (Amodio, 2019). 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), affective reactions to threat or reward (Pavlovian learning), approach/avoidance behavioral associations (instrumental learning), and automatic behavioral responses (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; Amodio, 2008; Amodio & Ratner, 2011).

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.