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Me, biased? Implicit bias in youth work

By Kathryn Sharpe

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.
Even so, research indicates that simply educating individuals is not enough; systemic changes need to be built into organizations to mitigate bias. Some organizational debiasing strategies:
  • 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.
Where do you recognize that implicit bias may have an impact in your work or your organization?  How might you use one of the de-biasing strategies to create a more reflective and equitable environment for youth in your community?

-- Kathryn Sharpe, Extension educator

You are welcome to comment on this blog post. We encourage civil discourse, including spirited disagreement. We will delete comments that contain profanity, pornography or hate speech--any remarks that attack or demean people because of their sex, race, ethnic group, etc.--as well as spam.
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  1. Hi, Kathryn. I think that by its nature, implict bias shows up in everything that we do, but in an attempt to not give you a cop-out answer to your question, one area of work that I think we forget about this having an impact is within our meetings! Think about how many factors impact something as simple as a meeting--the structure, the norms about who talks and when, how facilitation ends up being conducted, notes taken (or not), action steps named (or not), starting on time (or not)--all the cultural norms that affect how a "should" run means that we each bring with us varying expectations about what makes a "good" or "satisfying" meeting. Meetings are a constant factor in how we do business, and if someone outside the dominant culture of that meeting comes in (and that could include simply a person who is new to the culture of the organization, but if you are also a person of color, say, coming into a room of predominantly white colleagues, that adds another factor), the implicit bias we each have towards effective an ineffective meetings can play out in creating an environment that does not feel natural or healthy to people outside of that cultural norm.

  2. Thank you so much for your thoughts on this, Jessica--this is such an astute observation. Indeed, meetings are the field on which so many things get played out, both in our 4-H program and in any organization or staff, and the power dynamics can have direct implications for participants feeling empowered and engaged, or feeling silenced and excluded. As you observed, there are a complex set of rules, mostly unspoken ones, that determine the culture that will run the meeting. What strategies have you explored that have helped to counteract some of the implicit bias that can be present in setting the stage of a meeting? What are some that you have seen that reinforce bias?

    1. One thing that I've seen done that tends to help for regular meetings is having a rotation of facilitation--that way different styles get experienced by the group and introduced, and the group ends up forming their own meeting culture that's more accepted by everyone in the group. But I also think that actually talking about it as an issue or potential issue opens the way to uncovering those biases that we all may not be aware of. One particular behavior that I think can reinforce bias if not done with sensitivity is the amount of silence that's allowed to hover in the room between questions or points being made. For some ways of being, silence is something to be broken; in others, it's important time to think and allow room for the more quite people to chime in.

    2. These are great strategies, Jessica, and they are intentional ways to move us from the "fast" brain system where bias tends to dominate, and to move us to the "slow", more reflective system where we can be aware of and challenge our own biases. Thank you for raising these perspectives.

  3. Two strategies that we teach in our leadership workshops are called Suggestion Circle and Perspective Circle. Suggestion Circle has a staff person pose a brief dilemma to a group that listen to the dilemma in a circle. Each person in the circle gets a brief time to describe a suggestion they have to offer to the situation. There is no discussion or debating about each person's suggestion, just a collective group of ideas that go beyond what the staff person would have on their own. It stretches thinking and may challenge biases. The Perspective Circle is somewhat similar but gives specific roles for people to take. This strategy can address larger social issues than the Suggestion Circle. Roles might be pre-determined (but don't need to be), intentionally asking the group to consider broader views including different religion or belief systems, age, gender, socio-economic status perspectives-- however you would want to spread the perspective to be spoken for all to consider. Hope these are useful ideas, and I am certainly happy to give more examples if helpful. Thanks for your very thoughtful blog addressing bias we don't even know we carry!

    1. Margo, that sounds like a great exercise that would work great with our leadership board as they work on our strategic planning process to ensure that our programs are welcoming and are reflecting the true needs of our communities. By asking each person to consider a different specific perspective will allow them to more fully appreciate the potential barriers or experiences that they unconsciously would not recognize because of their own assumptions on what is normal or satisfactory for them within the program. Central region 4-H staff are using the lens of first year 4-H families in our work as we examine our programs. I believe that lens of viewing programs is a good start to recognizing where our own implicit bias' as it is often easy take for granted that people understand the 4-H language and culture.

    2. Margo and Anna, thank you both for offering such concrete strategies that we can employ to help us develop a reflective practice that supports us in challenging our own biases. Margo, the circles that you described are prime examples of ways that we can develop organizational strategies for bias mitigation. Research definitely shows that simply addressing individual bias is not sufficient. Anna highlights one of the ways that our organization is using the lens of first generation families, which is essentially a way of engaging empathy as well as a critical eye on our policies that might be experienced as biased or exclusionary. What kinds of changes can you envision these strategies making possible?

  4. Thank you for writing this. Our biases indirectly guide our work and I am working on further identifying them. The tests I have taken indicate I have a long way to go - which I am certain directly affects my work. While in some cases, our presence certainly creates some bias, I would encourage contribution to meetings to be to listen as much as one is able.

    With regards to hiring. The names of high schools indicate many things, the major that was studied and the college or university can also lead us down further bias paths - things that we often consider 'unbiased' can create further misjudgments. I am not offering any solutions to this part as I cannot think of any for this problem...I would love to hear some.

  5. Joshua, thank you for sharing your thoughts. Indeed, I think that most people who take the tests find that we have a ways to go, largely because the tests reflect not what we believe, but how we have been acculturated, the messages we have seen/heard, and many other factors that impact our subconscious minds. I find great hope in the fact that we can indeed make progress, however, by intentional work to connect with people from different backgrounds and by consciously counteracting negative messages we have received by replacing them with more positive ones. Your idea of doing a significant amount of listening in meetings is a key strategy for escaping the faster-thinking part of the brain that tends to reflect bias, and instead listening deeply and giving the slower, more reflective part of our brains a chance to absorb new messages and process them mindfully.

    In terms of the questions on hiring, it is true that so many aspects of our lives on paper can give clues (sometimes accurately, sometimes not) about our identities. There may not be a perfect solution here. But this is also where the organizational-level mitigation strategy may mean creating more diverse hiring committees so that individuals' biases may be challenged or balanced out by other peoples' perspectives. What ideas to others have for how to approach de-biasing the hiring process?


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