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Many companies have offered diversity trainings to teach their employees about implicit biases. But what does that mean, and is it really helping anything?

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In May 2018, Starbucks closed all their American stores for a day to train their employees about implicit bias after accusations of racism. In fact, companies all over have been doing this kind of diversity training, teaching their employees about biases in the workplace.

So what are they trying to do, and how can we tell if it’s helping? Well, implicit bias means something pretty specific to psychologists, and it might not be exactly what you think of when you hear the word "racism.” And, despite good intentions, this training might not be helping as much as we’d hope. First, though, we should mention that even though race and racism are complicated topics, a lot of this research relies on simple comparisons — like, using generic examples of people who are black or white.

Sometimes that’s a necessary part of the study design. And in this video, we’re just skimming the surface of this complicated part of psychology. Explicit beliefs are obvious biases that people might straight-up tell you, like thinking men are better at math than women.

But psychologists use the word implicit to refer to things that act outside of your awareness. Which means implicit biases are harder to find, and harder to get rid of. One famous way to measure them is called the implicit association test, or IAT.

The basic idea is to have people play a sorting game as quickly and accurately as possible, moving pictures to either side of a computer screen. For example, a test for implicit racial bias might involve pictures of faces of white people and black people, mixed in with pleasant and unpleasant photos. And then participants would get different rules about how to sort them.

According to the IAT, if people make more mistakes when they’re told to sort a black person’s face with a picture of a flower or a bunny, they have an implicit association of whiteness with pleasantness. Over several decades, psychologists have used the IAT to note lots of implicit associations that seem to be lurking in people's minds — like women with family, men with work, white with good, and young with good. These implicit associations might contradict your explicit beliefs, or even be negative things about you.

Like, women and black people have shown negative associations with their own identities. But there’s some debate over whether the IAT means anything beyond how good you are at a sorting game. In a 2009 meta-analysis published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, researchers looked at 122 studies with almost 15,000 participants.

All these studies tested whether the IAT could predict prejudiced behavior better than just asking people about their explicit beliefs in a survey. Over all the studies that tested for implicit associations of black and white people, the IAT was a better predictor of behaviors like using slurs and workplace discrimination than explicit questions about racism. But that wasn’t the case for other areas of discrimination, like gender, sexual orientation, or political party.

In other words, there was a clearer separation between implicit biases and explicit beliefs with racial prejudice than other kinds of prejudice. And that's not the only concern with the IAT. More recent research has found that the IAT isn’t any more useful than more subtle survey questions when measuring racist beliefs.

For instance, instead of asking someone if white people are smarter than black people, newer surveys might ask if black people are "getting too demanding.” And finally, psychologists have only found the IAT to be useful for looking at whole groups, like hundreds of people participating in a study. Individuals are likely to get a pretty different score if they take the test a second time. So many psychologists disagree about whether the IAT is the best way to measure implicit biases.

But implicit biases do seem to be real, and affect our judgment in other ways too. Like, in a 2012 study, 127 science faculty were asked to review application materials for a lab manager job, with either a male or female name at the top. Participants gave higher ratings of competence, hireability, and higher starting salaries to the resumes with male names.

You can find a similar effect with race. Researchers sent thousands of resumes to job ads in Boston and Chicago with either stereotypically white or black names at the top. And the white names had a 9.7% chance of getting called back, but the black names only had a 6.5% chance.

Even without explicitly reporting any racist beliefs, participants in studies have also been more likely to remember a character in a story as aggressive if the character was black. Or they overestimated the ages of black kids compared to white kids, and rated black men as taller and stronger than white men — even when their strength and height were matched. So, can we fix these sorts of implicit biases, and does corporate training do any good?

Well, we start unintentionally learning these associations young, through our environment and culture. So they’re hard to avoid. A recent meta-analysis of 492 studies that’s still under review found that interventions, from perspective-taking to giving counterstereotypical examples, can change people’s scores on implicit tests like the IAT.

But that doesn't necessarily translate into changing behaviors. But an earlier meta-analysis of 515 studies in 2006 reported that just spending time with diverse groups of people works to counteract prejudice pretty well. This so-called intergroup contact works better in some situations than others.

Like, having coworkers of different races is more likely to reduce prejudice than, say, managing employees of different races. So it’s not as simple as “everyone’s a little bit racist.” But it’s good to understand that sometimes you can be biased in your actions, behavior, and judgments — so we can all work to be better. Thanks for watching this episode of SciShow Psych, and thanks especially to our patrons on Patreon who make all of our channels possible.

If you want to support us, you can go to, or just share our videos to help everyone see the world a little more complexly. see the world a little more complexly. [ ♪ OUTRO ].