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Five Ways to Challenge Implicit Bias


This article originally appeared in the Bentley Magazine.

Five Ways to Challenge Implicit Bias

Wiley Davi, Associate Dean of Arts and Sciences

Everyone is prey to assumptions and opinions that operate outside the conscious mind. Here, Bentley’s Wiley Davi shares strategies to root out these hidden biases and improve decision-making. The associate dean for arts and sciences has expertise in service-learning, diversity and gender studies.


We are continually bombarded with ideas and images that the brain processes in complex ways — ways that are often out of our conscious awareness. These “implicit biases” have a powerful effect on how we make sense of our experiences. The first step in countering their influence is to admit that we all possess implicit biases.


Asked to explain their thinking, students often say, “Oh, I just went with my gut instinct.” That kind of non-reflective thinking can reinforce personal blind spots; it is especially prone to being informed by biases out of our awareness. To get a sense of your implicit biases, take this test developed at Harvard University. I have worked with women, for example, who identify themselves as staunch feminists, yet they take the test and are horrified to learn they harbor an implicit bias toward men over women.


We often seek feedback from likeminded people. “Tom was so annoying in that meeting, don’t you think?” we ask of a colleague who tends to think Tom is annoying. Heading off the thoughts that may reinforce bias requires what Harvard professor and researcher Robin Ely calls “genuine support.” This feedback “doesn’t necessarily validate your point of view but, rather, helps you gain a broader perspective.” The more we can shift perspective, the better our ability to counter those invisible operations in our brain.


Research suggests that the brain doesn’t particularly like uncertainty. In fact, perceiving uncertainty as a threat, it responds by trying to predict what is coming and avoid ambiguity. Think about that in the context of biases: They function as a way to reduce complexities into digestible forms. Thus, if we can begin to embrace uncertainty, we can resist reductive thinking.


Many researchers would argue that implicit biases cannot be eliminated entirely — so we must build in systems accordingly. In orchestras, for example, placing a screen between performers and search committee members has led to more women being hired. Similarly, managers could ask a staff member to remove job candidates’ names and other demographic material from resumes, to reduce bias around hiring decisions.


by Joanna Howarth April 17, 2018

When Brenden Botelho ‘20 and Jonny Boains ‘18 took internships in the Mass. Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, what was the biggest community problem to tackle? Adapting to climate change.