Explicit and Implicit Biases: Papers We’re Reading, Week 5

February 5, 2021  |  By: Abi Warren

Does prompting people to recognize their own implicit gender bias decrease sexism?

Researchers explored this question by inducing an “aha” moment amongst study participants and measuring the impact on sexist attitudes.

Women are underrepresented in STEM fields and the STEM gender gap is perpetuated by factors that include stereotypes about the ability of women to excel in STEM domains.

Explicit and Implicit Biases: A Game

A team of academic researchers developed a logic-puzzle game in which participants could only win by realizing that one of the scientist characters is a woman. In other words, participants in the intervention group had to recognize and correct their own gender assumptions to win the game (an “aha” moment). In the control group, participants could win by recognizing that one of the characters was a professor.

In two studies, researchers measured the tendency of game participants to assume a non-gendered scientist was a man rather than a woman, as well as the intervention’s impact on attitudes toward women in science, sexism, and donations to women in STEM organizations.

Across the studies, over 90% of students who provided a gender pronoun described a scientist as a man.

Researchers found that participants in the intervention group reported less positive views of women (b=-0.07, SE=0.03, t(77.02)=-2.37, p=0.20) than participants in the control and scored higher on measures of sexism (b=0.07, SE=0.04, t(88.97)=2.06, p=0.42) relative to the control. These results suggest a paradoxical increase in explicit bias. 

The findings demonstrate the complexity of confronting bias and forewarn about backfire effects — potentially rooted in a defensive response to the identification of implicit bias.

Researchers also measured game enjoyment and found that it was positively correlated with positive attitudes toward women in science (r(340)=0.19, p<0.001) and negatively correlated with sexism (r(341)=-0.23, p<0.001). These results suggest that game enjoyment may provide a buffer for defensiveness and be a fruitful area for further exploration. 

Citation: Freedman, G., Seidman, M., Flanagan, M., Kaufman, G., & Green, M. C. (2018). The impact of an “aha” moment on gender biases: Limited evidence for the efficacy of a game intervention that challenges gender assumptions. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 78, 162-167.

Can Emotion-Based Interventions Shift Bias Toward Latino People?

Negative attitudes and discrimination against Latino people exist in healthcare systems and contribute to ongoing health inequities. Discrimination includes minimizing Latino patients’ health complaints, ignoring non-English-speaking Latino patients, giving priority space in the hospital to white patients even if a Latino patient appears sicker, and allowing after-hours visits to white families but limiting Latino families’ visiting hours.

One pilot test investigated the impact of a narrative photography intervention (Yo Veo Salud) on implicit attitudes of medical residents toward Latino people. 

The two-part intervention included a discussion of a set of photos chronicling the multi-year migration journey of a young girl and her family designed to elicit intuitive and emotional responses. It also included a forum in which Latino adolescents presented photographs in response to the prompt, “What I wish my doctor knew about my life,” and a facilitated discussion with the youth about photos that highlighted how the immigrant experience affects their lives and interactions with the healthcare system. 

Results demonstrated that explicit attitudes, such as ethnocultural empathy toward Latino people increased in the intervention group (M=5.34, SD=0.54) relative to the control group (M=4.57, SD=0.70, F=24.18, p<0.05). However, implicit attitudes were largely unaffected. 

While decreasing explicit bias is critical, these findings highlight the need to identify interventions that also shift medical residents ‘system 1’ operational system of thinking — or change the nature of their automatic attitudes toward Latino people.

Citation: Chapman, M. V., Hall, W. J., Lee, K., Colby, R., Coyne-Beasley, T., Day, S., … & Payne, K. (2018). Making a difference in medical trainees’ attitudes toward Latino patients: A pilot study of an intervention to modify implicit and explicit attitudes. Social Science & Medicine, 199, 202-208.


Should We Focus Bias Interventions on Children?

Much popular behavioral science research and literature focuses on the psychological biases and behavior of adults. However, it’s important to also consider cognitive biases in children, given that many (such as racial and gender biases) are learned and reinforced throughout adolescence.

One psychological study examined how an intervention designed to reduce implicit anti-Black bias impacted attitudes of children of different ages. Researchers exposed children to counter-stereotypical exemplars — in this case, short stories of Black individuals represented in a very positive frame — depictions that contrast with the larger cultural messages that contribute to the stigmatization of Black people in the U.S.

Control groups were exposed to either a vignette of flowers or positive white exemplars, which represent broader cultural stereotypes.

After watching the vignettes, study participants each took a modified Implicit Association Test (IAT), through which they were prompted to rapidly associate a “good” word (happy, fun, good, nice) or a “bad” word (yucky, sad mad, mean) with pictures of Black or white faces.

Mean IAT scores revealed significantly lower “Black + bad” implicit associations for those shown the intervention (D=0.1, SD=0.15) than in the flower (D=0.09, SD=0.18, p=0.004) or white (D=0.11, SD-0.17, p=0.001) control groups. This was only true for children in the ~10 years old category; children in the younger intervention group (~7 years) category did not demonstrate any significant decrease in implicit “Black + bad” bias.

These findings suggest that for this type of implicit bias intervention, children around 10 years old have enough cognitive flexibility (relative to slightly younger children) to overcome the initial biases that they have formed. They may thus be a good target group for bias interventions, given that they will have experienced less reinforcement of biases (relative to adults).

Citation: Gonzalez, A. M., Steele, J. R., & Baron, A. S. (2017). Reducing children’s implicit racial bias through exposure to positive out‐group exemplars. Child Development, 88(1), 123-130.


What to Make of All This?

In summary, addressing explicit and implicit biases of different types is complex. A few key takeaways:

  • While “aha” moments for recognizing gender bias may raise awareness of implicit bias, they can backfire by triggering defensiveness and actually increase explicit bias.
  • Amongst medical residents, narrative photography interventions may effectively decrease explicit bias toward Latinx people, but leave many implicit biases intact.
  • Children at certain developmental stages (e.g. ~ 10 years) may be good targets for racial bias interventions featuring counter-stereotypical exemplars. However, further research is needed to investigate effective implicit bias interventions for younger children (e.g. ~7 years).


See week 4 here.

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