As many of you have probably already seen, Rebecca Kukla has an excellent post up at Leiter’s blog on the effects of implicit biases, specifically as affecting hiring practices. However, as she is done with her job of guest-blogger over there, the post is not open for comments, and with Rebecca’s agreement, I figured it might be useful to have a discussion here.
Rebecca is making very good points about the effects of implicit biases in hiring practices, and in particular how hard (in fact, nearly impossible) it is to shield yourself from them if you are on the decision-making side of things. Now, as it turns out, one of the books I read over my vacation last week was Cordelia Fine’s A Mind of its Own (as mentioned before, co-blogger John Protevi and I are big fans of her work). One of the chapters of the book is ‘The Bigoted Brain’, and she discusses precisely some of the findings from experimental psychology (on the ways implicit biases operate) that Rebecca refers to. As she mentions, one of the surprising features of implicit biases is that, if you actively try to suppress them, they in fact re-emerge later on with additional strength. (In fact, it is not so surprising given that suppressing specific thoughts is likely to have a priming effect.) Here’s an excerpt from the book:
Indeed, research suggests that even successful attempts to stem our prejudices can backfire later. We hold the stereotype down temporarily, but it bobs right back up again with increased vigor. Researchers asked people to write a “day in the life” story about someone in a photo, who happened to be a skinhead. Some of the volunteers were asked to try to avoid stereotyping in their story. These volunteers did successfully suppress the skinhead stereotype […] However, the stereotype actually gained new strength from its brief confinement. […] When the volunteers were asked shortly afterward to write a second passage about a skinhead, their stories contained far more stereotyping than those of people who had been left to respond naturally to their stereotypes. (Fine 2006, 196/7)
One might be tempted to conclude that being aware of and trying to work on one’s own implicit biases is in fact the wrong thing to do. On the other hand, some of the people I know who are most reactive to the idea of being prone to implicit biases are precisely those who see themselves as particularly committed to avoiding bigotry – feminists, egalitarians, as if that made them immune to the implicit biases who afflict everybody else. So I guess the only recommendation one can make, to members of hiring committees as well as to people in general, is that the first step towards at least mitigating the pernicious effects of implicit biases (and let’s note that not all effects of implicit biases are pernicious: our bigoted brain has its utility) is the AA-approach: “Hi, I’m Jane, and I am prone to implicit biases.” Except that in this case, everybody is a member of Implicit Biases Anonymous; we all have bigoted brains.
But anyway, here my two cents, but most importantly the goal of this post is to foster discussion on Rebecca’s post, so please make yourselves at home!