Implicit bias is difficult to combat. The primary challenge is that people harboring implicit bias—also referred to as unconscious bias—are by definition unaware that they have such biases.
Rather than having, expressing, or acting on explicit prejudices against certain groups, people with unconscious bias may unknowingly make decisions based on deep-seated opinions about those groups. This could occur, for example, in the hiring process or when considering employees for promotions.
Fortunately, while unconscious bias can be difficult to address and remedy, recent research from a Harvard study suggests that levels of unconscious bias toward many groups has been steadily and dramatically decreasing over the past decade.
“Using 4.4 million tests of implicit and explicit attitudes measured continuously from an Internet population of U.S. respondents over 13 years, we conducted the first comparative analysis using time-series models to examine patterns of long-term change in six social-group attitudes,” says Tessa E.S. Charlesworth and Mahzarin R. Banaji, in the report Patterns of Implicit and Explicit Attitudes: I. Long-Term Change and Stability From 2007 to 2016.
The six social group attitudes studied focused on sexual orientation, race, skin tone, age, disability, and body weight.
So, what did they find? “Even within just a decade,” they write, “all explicit responses show change toward attitude neutrality.” In other words, explicit bias based on those six dimensions was reduced.
They go on to say that “parallel implicit responses also showed change toward neutrality for sexual orientation, race and skin-tone attitudes but revealed stability over time for age and disability attitudes and change away from neutrality for body-weight attitudes.”
But Biases Are Shifting
It’s that last part that’s really interesting. While implicit bias has reduced when it comes to sexual orientation, race, and skin tone attitudes, there was little to no change for implicit attitudes toward age and disability and greater implicit bias in attitudes toward body weight.
That’s potentially bad news for those who struggle with body weight because while there are explicit protections against discrimination based on age, disability, gender, race, and sexual orientation, with a couple of local exceptions, there are no similar legal protections from discrimination based on body weight.
But just because there may not be explicit legal protections from such discrimination, HR managers and employers can help create a more welcoming and supportive work environment for employees by working to combat implicit bias.
The first step is simply making people aware that the problem exists despite the fact that they may be explicitly unaware of their biases.