Saving Humans from Implicit Bias. Ema Sullivan-Bissett


This week Lisa and I have been writing about our research on the Epistemic Innocence Project. This is the fourth in a series of five posts. I will be briefly discussing implicit bias, why it is harmful, and why investigating the epistemic status of implicit bias might be important when we are thinking about how to tackle it.

By implicit bias I will follow Jules Holroyd in meaning something like the following:

An individual harbors an implicit bias against some stigmatized group (G), when she has automatic cognitive or affective associations between (her concept of) G and some negative property (P) or stereotypic trait (T), which are accessible and can be operative in influencing judgment and behaviour without the conscious awareness of the agent. (Holroyd 2012: 275)

Worryingly, empirical work has shown that such biases are held by ‘most people’, even those people who avow egalitarian positions, or are members of the targeted group (Steinpreis et al. 1999). You can discover your own implicit biases by taking the tests here (warning: results may be very disconcerting!)

Implicit biases can affect decisions and actions, often negatively. For example, it is well documented that a female CV is rated less well than a male CV (even when those CVs are otherwise identical) (Steinpreis et al. 1999), and that when asked whether they saw a hand tool or a gun, participants who previously saw a black face instead of a white face are more likely to respond that they saw a gun (Payne 2006). The implications of this should be obvious: implicit biases put stigmatized groups at a distinct disadvantage.

In our project, one of the things we are interested in is the epistemic status of beliefs based on implicit biases. I think that at least some of these beliefs are what we are calling epistemically innocent. A belief is epistemically innocent if it meets the following two conditions:

1. Epistemic Benefit: The belief delivers some significant epistemic benefit to an agent at a time (e.g., it contributes to the acquisition, retention or good use of true beliefs of importance to that agent).

2. No Relevant Alternatives. Alternative beliefs that would deliver the same epistemic benefit are unavailable to the agent at that time.

I suggest some reasons for thinking some beliefs based on implicit bias meet these conditions, in my post on our project blog.

Let’s assume that I’m right about the epistemic status of beliefs based on implicit bias; that they are at least sometimes epistemically innocent. Why does this matter? I am interested in the following question: if beliefs based on implicit bias are epistemically innocent, does this have implications for how we ought to tackle implicit biases? I think the answer to this question is yes, which is why it is really important to work out whether beliefs based on implicit bias are, as I suspect, epistemically innocent. If they are, we need to rid them of this status, we need to make it the case that beliefs based on implicit bias are not epistemically innocent, and we should do this by making alternative beliefs available (that is, we should stop beliefs based on implicit bias from meeting the No Relevant Alternatives condition).

We should seek to make people aware of their biases, and more ambitiously, make it the case that they do not have them in the first place. One way to do this is to expose people to counter-stereotypes, studies have shown that expose to counterstereotypical exemplars (women, black people) can reduce implicit bias or the manifestations thereof (Saul 2012: 259) (examples of counterstereotypes include the photo of Martin Luther King above, and Marie Curie below).


If beliefs based on implicit bias are epistemically innocent, such that alternative beliefs are not available, this suggests that we need to raise awareness of implicit bias, which might help us understand the phenomenon better and work towards controlling the influence it has over our beliefs, and present us with alternative epistemically more worthy, beliefs.

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