What do these situations have in common: a youth worker addressing challenging behavior, a judge deciding on ribbons at the state fair and a hiring committee interviewing candidates? Answer: In each of these situations, people are making decisions based on both conscious and unconscious factors. Neurosocial research is revealing that human beings are influenced constantly by both positive and negative subconscious associations about others, based on characteristics such as race, gender, age, weight, accents and many other aspects of our identity. This phenomenon is known as implicit bias and has significant implications in our behavior and judgments.
Why do we need to be concerned about implicit bias in youth work? After all, youth workers tend to be an open-minded community. Yet the research on the neuroscience behind implicit bias reveals that these associations inherently occur outside of our conscious awareness, therefore we cannot identify them or change them simply through logical thought. The effects of implicit bias in our associations -- and therefore in our decision making -- can be empirically measured through a simple but effective test called the Implicit Association Test. Taking it demonstrates that we all make subconscious judgments and they frequently conflict with our explicitly stated attitudes and beliefs. These biases have tangible effects in how we relate to others and can cause prejudicial behavior.
For example, the “in-group/out-group bias” refers to our more positive perception of people similar to us, and our more negative perception of people different than us. This could mean that we might be more likely to reward the performance of youth with whom we identify, for example, or be quicker to discipline youth who are different from us.
Once we have identified our areas of implicit bias, there are some strategies that we can employ on an individual level to mitigate them:
- By sharing experiences with people from the group about whom we have subconscious judgments, we can establish new associations. To be effective, the individuals should share equal status, common goals, and be in a cooperative rather than a competitive environment.
- Implicit biases tend to be strongest in situations where a decision-maker is under time pressure or stress, so intentionally slowing down the process can help us to use more deliberative, less biased thinking.
- To mitigate in-group/out-group bias in hiring decisions, remove any identifying information from applications before reviewing them.
- When making decisions about discipline, create a policy of engaging another person, ideally someone who will have a different perspective, to help work through the decision in a deliberative way.
-- Kathryn Sharpe, Extension educator
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