Is It In My Head?: Implicit Bias And The Challenge To Connect

Because of our individual life experiences, each of us has subconsciously constructed our own unique vision of the world. Whether positive, negative, or a bit of both, this outlook has been nuanced by factors we can clearly identify: When and where we were raised, the approach of our school teachers, the companies who’ve employed us. These dynamics converge to compose our Unconscious Biases, which can feel downright tangible to our brains. Add to this equation our personal blind spots, which further differentiate us from others in a mysterious way, and our individuality can start to seem a bit chilling.

To effectively embrace our own unconscious bias, we must first accept that we are imperfect humans. A healthy dose of self-compassion comes in handy here, as does the courage to look within and examine how our mirrors are misaligned, plus a willingness to readjust them. And as you soon will learn, the results can be rewarding and powerful.

The Roadblocks To Truth

With the basis of our biases established, how are we then to dissect the instances where our reality is actually not true, but fabricated in our minds either consciously or unconsciously? How can we become willing or able to accept certain, well, unacceptable things about ourselves? Think about what you might be unwilling to admit to yourself. For example, have you convinced yourself that you drink one glass of wine per night, despite consistently finding the bottle empty in the morning? If you claim you work 60 hours per week, would you be outed for only working 30 if a time journal were employed?

Folks like you and me, who are otherwise honest, are known to innocently alter the truth due to social pressure or to prevent embarrassment. We’re mere mortals, after all, and our unwillingness to embrace certain aspects of ourselves is entirely natural. But when we truly believe what we are saying, that’s when those pesky blind spots are allowed to settle in. “The difference between being unwilling and unable is the difference between purposely hiding something from someone and unknowingly hiding something from yourself”, indicates Harvard’s Project Implicit.

One could clearly interpret these as instances of denial, and not be considered judgmental. For many of us, it feels profoundly uncomfortable to admit certain things to ourselves. In other cases, stubbornness becomes the hindrance to truth. “But the truth does not cease to exist when it is ignored – it just tends to fester and haunt us”, writes Marc Chernoff in a moving article about Life-Changing Truths.

Circumstantial Evidence

A more deeply-rooted bias to factor in is Implicit Bias, which originates in our prehistoric brains. Such biases are social imprints that affect us universally as humans, and give birth to feelings which we had no idea we harbored. One vivid example is illustrated in a powerful TED talk delivered by Verna Myers, which I think of as “circumstantial bias”. Verna describes an incident on a plane where, after taking pride in realizing that the pilot was a woman (“Rock on, Sister!”), she instinctively became apprehensive when the plane encountered severe turbulence (“Can that woman handle this plane?”). She confesses that she would never have doubted the skills of a male pilot.

Verna’s bias is not unlike my own experience last December, when I had my annual physical with my doctor of nearly 20 years. This visit was different, as I was called back to have the routine exam procedures executed by a male nurse. I became incredibly uncomfortable, but couldn’t justify the discomfort in my mind. “He’s a professional. I’ve been seen by male medical providers before. I trust my doctor and her team. I’m in the safety of her offices. I personally know other male nurses.” Yet, a male nurse doing his job made me feel unsafe, subconsciously. The threat actually manifested itself in my blood pressure registering as elevated!

Ah, The Implications.

In hearing a second example from Verna, I was shaken to the core. It describes some results from The Implicit Association Test, highlighting a deep-seated societal bias. Here’s how Verna shared the summary of a test taken by more than 5 million people:

“We are more quickly able to associate a picture of a white person with a positive word than we are when we are trying to associate positive with a black face, and vice versa. When we see a black face, it is easier for us to connect black with negative than it is white with negative. Seventy percent of white people taking that test prefer white. Fifty percent of black people taking that test prefer white. You see, we were all outside when the contamination came down.”

Heavy stuff. And more proof that we as individuals must begin to connect with others in a genuine way. Such acute societal biases have been embedded for hundreds, if not thousands of years, leaving us faced with an urgent challenge. Those of us who come from diametrically contrasting lives can leverage what we know about brain science and connection to achieve greater inclusion in our own networks, on our internal teams at work, across companies, and eventually throughout society. This use of unconscious bias as a connector, rather than a barrier, will be explored further in my next article.