Implicit bias is a well-documented phenomenon. Careful studies have shown lots of lots of implicit biases that we have. Most of them are only tiny. The effects are demonstrable but not huge. If we are evaluating a resume, we are slightly more likely to see someone with a name that we expect to be black to be less competent than we would if we saw the same resume with a name attached to it that we would not have any racial associations with (and thus we might assume the person to be white). Police officers are slightly more likely to see a cell phone or wallet as a gun if the person holding it has darker skin. These biases are just as present, or nearly as present, in populations affected by these stereotypes. For example, black police officers have a similar bias to that of white police officers in the case I just described.
If the effects are tiny, why do we care? Because the effect is demonstrable when you look at lots and lots of cases. Implicit biases can explain disproportionate effects without relying on accusing the people involved of being racists. They just have the biases that we all have. Certain groups have a stigma attached to them, and it lowers our expectations that someone in that group will be as competent. This stereotype affects members of that group as much as it affects everyone else. In fact, all it takes is knowing that the stereotype exists, and you are likely to display this implicit bias. Nor does it occur in a lower frequency among those with a more progressive agenda. Believing the stereotypes to be false does not help remove the bias, although being more intimately connected relationally with people who are in the stigmatized group can sometimes help reduce some of these biases.
None of this is new. Psychologists have been aware of this for several decades and have been publishing careful work refining our understanding of what's going on throughout that time. But every once in a while I see something about an implicit bias that goes along surprising lines or stems from more complex causes. I have found one that deals with a stereotype within a stereotype. I was directed to one a while back that is very interesting but not quite in the way it's described in the article. The headline suggests that it shows that women and minorities are punished for caring about diversity. If that means anyone is deliberately punishing them, then it's completely the wrong idea. If it just means there is an implicit bias against women and minorities who care about diversity, that's much closer to what they have found. But I think the explanation they offer for this is very unlikely to be correct, and what seems to me to be a more likely explanation involves a very interesting hierarchy of embedded biases.
I don't see a fine-tuned enough discussion of what they did to answer every question I have about it, but what their study seems to show is a very specific implicit bias. Some people are in a position to make hiring decisions and influence policy regarding diversity. They might urge those in charge to hire more people in groups that are not as well represented. They might themselves make an effort to hire such people. One might think that, with progressive-minded employers, this should raise one's profile and lead to higher job performance ratings. Not so. It turns out that such behavior or signaling of their views does not increase their job performance ratings from their superiors. People who do such things and say such things do not have a higher rate of being viewed positively than people who don't do such things and say such things. If they are white men, then that's it. It doesn't lower their ratings either. But those who are not white men have a decrease in their ratings if they do and say things to promote diversity in the workplace. That's the implicit bias here. It's a bias against those who are not white men and who signal a desire for a more diverse workplace or actively work toward achieving that.
To be clear, this is not a bias against those who are not white men. Women and non-whites who do not talk about diversity or make efforts in that direction were the comparison class to show this bias. They were comparing women and non-whites who engage in this kind of diversity talk and behavior with those who do not engage in that kind of talk and behavior. The ones who did promote diversity had lower performance evaluations than those who didn't, Meanwhile, the same effect did not occur with white men who promoted diversity. It neither increased nor decreased their evaluations. This is a much more precise bias than a bias against those who are not white men. It is a bias against those who are not white men but who engage in efforts to promote diversity.
The article offers an explanation. They suggest that this is caused by the diversity efforts triggering an implicit bias that we already know of that's been documented for decades. Women and non-whites do face implicit biases that affect their performance evaluations. But that seems unlikely to me. Implicit biases don't work that way. It's not as if implicit biases get turned off because a woman or minority doesn't talk about diversity. Implicit biases operate all the time. They have tiny effects usually, but they don't just go away when you aren't thinking about race or gender. So the idea that talking about race or gender will remind someone that you are black or a woman and then trigger the bias seems unlikely to me. The bias never went away. That's what makes it implicit. We aren't aware of it, but it is operating. So I don't think that's what's going on here.
What strikes me as much more likely is that another stereotype is operating besides the original one that was already operating. The additional bias is from the stereotype of the feminist or race activist who cares so much about diversity that they spend their time on that issue rather than doing their job. We all know of people who actually do come across that way. I think this stereotype may actually have been true of one previous superintendent of the schools in my city. She seemed to care so much about social justice issues that it was all she talked about, and she didn't seem interested at all in the actual business of educating students. Someone like that doesn't belong in the job of overseeing the education of all the schools in the city.
Now it's obvious to anyone who thinks about it for a half a second that caring about diversity and wanting to increase representation of underrepresented groups does not amount to being incompetent at one's job. But if hearing about someone who cares about these things activates the stereotype of people who spend their time and energy on this sort of thing at the expense of their jobs, that can affect people's implicit judgments about the person's effectiveness and job performance, even if they don't believe that caring about these issues means being a bad supervisor or worker. And as with all implicit biases, all it takes is knowing about the stereotype for it to affect you somewhat. It doesn't take believing it. If you are aware of the stereotype, it affects your behavior in tiny ways, which will show up in larger numbers over many, many cases.
My wife told me after I had made this point that someone actually showed up in the Twitter feed where she had first seen this article, disputing it precisely because he thought those people who were being downrated were like those of this particular stereotype. In other words, he was explicitly endorsing the stereotype that most people would deny if they thought about it for a half a second, and he was using it to resist the conclusion that people operate in a way that they would if they were affected by this stereotype. The irony would be delicious if it were not sad.
Now I do have questions about this study. Nearly every implicit bias study I've seen raises more questions in my mind, and this one is no different. I'm curious how it interacts with the implicit biases that we already know about. I would expect lower evaluations of the non-white and women supervisors in general than the white men, even holding other things constant, but they actually only seem to have compared those caring about diversity within each group with those who didn't within each group. There was no cross-comparison done. Also, I would be curious if diversity-positive behavior toward one's outgroup mattered among the non-whites and women. Did women who promoted racial diversity suffer as much in their evaluations as women who promoted gender diversity? Did black men who promoted gender diversity? Did black men who promoted hiring more Asians or Hispanics? Does this apply to other kinds of diversity besides race and gender? I would very much like to see the results of further studies on this to parse out a more fine-tuned sense of what is going on here.
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Jeremy Pierce is a philosophy professor, Uber/Lyft driver, and father of five.