Implicit Bias

Explicit bias is overt and intentional. In contrast, implicit bias tends to be subtle, automatic, and often occurs without the perpetrator’s intention or awareness (Boysen & Vogel, 2009).


Implicit bias Psychologists Mahzarin R. Banaji and Anthony Greenwald are the creators of Project Implicit, a widely-used web-based tool used to discover one’s own implicit social attitudes. In Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People (2016), they write about mindbugs or as they explain, “ingrained habits of thought that lead to errors in how we perceive, remember, reason, and make decisions.” As they and other researchers establish, mindbugs are present in all humans. They write:

Understanding how mindbugs erode the coastline of rational thought, and ultimately the very possibility of a just and productive society, requires understanding the mindbugs that are at the root of the disparity between our inner minds and outward actions. (Blindspot)

Banaji and Greenwald’s mindbugs are the cornerstones to implicit bias – they are hidden forces that have great power when we make decisions, and they lead us to discriminatory behaviors, if unchecked.

Few academics are unfamiliar with discrimination and its effects. We have thought long and hard about the problems of discrimination in our society, and most of us have spent time reflecting on how our personal stories have been implicated and affected by discrimination.

Perhaps at this point in your life you imagine yourself largely free of bias as you are firm in your personal and professional opposition to discrimination, and have spent considerable time educating yourself on discrimination and its myriad effects. If that describes you, we encourage you to check out Project Implicit, and take a test (or two). The test results typically surprise educated professionals, even among those of us who are aware that we have biases and believe we can successfully circumvent them.

Take an Implicit Association Test (IAT)

Implicit bias in the classroom

How might implicit bias be present in teaching?

Examples (from Poorvu Center for Teaching and Learning, under a Creative Commons 2.0 license)

  • Instructors may assume that certain students know to seek help when they are struggling, although students at higher risk for struggling academically are often less likely to seek help and support.
  • Instructors may assume that students from certain backgrounds or social groups have differing intellectual abilities and/or ambitions. For example, an instructor might assume that a student from a certain background will be satisfied with lower achievement levels.
  • Instructors may expect students who speak with certain accents to be poor writers.
  • Students with substandard writing abilities may be stereotyped as lacking intellectual ability.
  • Instructors might treat students with physical disabilities as if they may also have mental disabilities, and thus require more attention.
  • Students who are affiliated with a particular identity group may be treated as experts on issues related to that group.
  • Instructors may assume that students will best relate to the historical, contemporary, or fictional character who resembles them demographically.
  • Students of certain groups may be expected to have certain participation styles (quiet, argumentative, agenda-oriented).

The good news is that adopting specific strategies, which move us away from “gut,” “instinct,” and “hunches” that typically lead to mitigating implicit bias: we can act in significantly less biased ways even if we can’t rid ourselves of the mindbugs that lead us astray from our values and commitments.

Note: A Surprising Warning

What is especially interesting about implicit bias research is this finding: the more certain people are that they are already mostly free of bias or have overcome their biases, the more likely they are to act in a biased fashion. Most of us are ashamed or self-conscious about bias, especially around gender, race, or ethnicity, and so we tell ourselves we can’t possibly have such a bias and reject measures that mitigate bias as unnecessary for us. Good for others, but not for us. It is this impulse to reject the possibility of biased actions we caution against. Rather, accept that implicit bias, which by definition is bias that we can’t see, is part of all of us and seek to adopt strategies to mitigate rather than eliminate bias.

Learn more

To learn more about implicit bias, consider watching one (or both) of the educational programs by the Kirwan Institute (the Ohio State University) and UCLA’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion center. Each takes about 30 minutes.

Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity

A series of professional videos in four modules that include concluding quizzes. The Kirwan Institute is an interdisciplinary organization at the Ohio State University that works to support social justice and diversity, equity, and inclusion. The implicit bias educational video series is intended to “help you understand the origins of implicit associations…. and uncover some of your own biases and learn strategies for addressing them.”

UCLA Office of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion

A series of seven 3-5 minute videos for the general public and employees that explains the science behind implicit bias, its real-world consequences, and measures and countermeasures that we can take as individuals.

For more information or help, please email the Office for Faculty Excellence or make an appointment with a consultant.

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