Game Your Brain – Control Your Biases

I have implicit biases, lots of them, and so do you! The absolute first thing we should recognize about implicit bias is that we all have it I have it you have it my mom’s got it everyone does. Every person with a functioning consciousness has implicit biases. They are part of the way that our brain works. But that is not to say that they are unchangeable because they certainly do and can change. This is also not to say that you are excused from examining your biases and how they impact others just because everyones a little biased. We can all do better to recognize and change our biases.

Simply put, implicit bias is the attribution of assumptions or stereotypes onto people based on social identities like race, class, gender sexuality, etc. without the explicit intention to do so. We can’t solve a problem we aren’t willing to see. Let’s talk about how to recognize, challenge, and change our implicit biases and how to shift negative harmful biases into more positive ones.

We all have implicit biases and sometimes they even run contrary to our moral non-bias. Have you ever had a knee-jerk reaction or thought related to a person or situation, and then thought to yourself something like “That wasn’t cool of me” or “No, that is not the right thing to think;” that is your implicit bias AND your active consciousness reconsidering that bias. You’re implicit bias is faster than your morality but we can coach ourselves to better control its responses.

Implicit Bias is governed primarily by the oldest, most primitive part of our brain, the reticular activating system or our RAS. The RAS doesn’t think, it only acts and it is always on, it never turns off, even in sleep. It’s what is responsible for waking us up when we smell smoke, or jumps at loud noises. It controls your breathing, your heart rate, your sweating. Your RAS also serves as a filtering system; there is far too much information and stimuli available to us at every single moment so our RAS does the filtering for us to help us make sense of our overwhelming world.

At the end of the day, your RAS’ job is to keep you safe, to make sure that you’re okay. What the RAS used to do was tell us someone who is different is bad, different is scary, different is a competing group or creature come to eat up all our crops and burn down our village. “Different” is obviously subjective and contextual and can be related to a variety of social identities and attributes like race, class, gender, sexuality, ability, religious, language, national origin, etc.

Today, as humans have evolved to be in diverse societies, our reticular activating system doesn’t need to function in that same fight or flight capacity. Most of us are around people who are different than us in some way a lot of the time; if we went straight into fight or flight every time we encountered someone who was different than us we would either never leave the house or have a real hard time making friends and keeping a job. Our RAS is never at rest, it is constantly scanning for differences or threats to be aware of and react to. It notices those social differences like race, class, gender, sexuality, ability and religion even if we swear we “don’t see color” and so on. Our Reticular Activating System and our Implicit Bias are especially active in impacting our actions at times of tension or when we need to make important decisions. For example, when we are making friends, or hiring staff members, when we are rushed or stressed and trying to make decisions quickly, when we are angry, when we are feeling challenged or threatened, and when we are afraid.

What are some examples of this? Studies have found that when jobs are hiring new employees, resumes are fifty percent more likely to be selected if the name on the resume has a name that signals whiteness, like Jake or Matthew, that when selecting an applicant with a name that signals Blackness like Davonte or Tyrone; even when the resumes are identical. In school, girls are more likely to be excel in language and art over math and science, whereas males are more likely to be associated with math and science over language and art. We have even recently seen t-shirts marketed to girls saying ‘math is hard’ or other messaging that socializes us all to believe women have no place in the science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, fields. As a result of this kind of socialization, despite making up nearly half of the U.S. workforce, women are still vastly underrepresented in the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) workforce, only comprising about 27% of STEM workers in 2019. This disproportionality is even further pronounced for women of color, specifically Black and Latinx women who make up only 2.9% and 4.3% of STEM workers. This all reveals clear gendered and racialized implicit biases that can ultimately go so far as to dictate future career paths, associating men with career fields that tend to earn more money and greater levels of prestige. When considering biases around sexuality, debate around same-sex marriage policies exposed implicit and explicit biases of homophobia or that queerness makes people morally wrong and dangerous, believing same sex marriage would cause “unforeseen legal and social consequences” and inflict “serious and harmful consequences to the social order” which there has been no evidence of. Our RAS is especially attuned to messages we have internalized through our socialization or things we were taught to believe and haven’t yet questioned.

So I imagine that many of you do not identify as racist or sexist or homophobic and that might be true- in fact I hope that it is! But it is very likely that you do have some biases related to things like race sex gender and sexuality. It’s not your fault, again we all have biases and often the way that our biases are structured are determined by the society that we grew up in. If the society that you grew up in provided some messages or outcomes or maybe media representations about race class sex gender etc. then it’s likely that your current perception of those things is impacted by those messages. Perhaps in ways we don’t yet fully realize. To learn how to game your brain and control your bias, I hope you’ll check out my keynote: Implicit Bias, What We Don’t Think We Think. If you’re interested in virtual learning please also check out my virtual modules titled: Recognize, Challenge, Change.