Does Familiarity Weaken Implicit Bias?

The second question was about whether one should expect more conscious and structured decision making (and thus, fewer snap judgments) from teachers as the school year progresses, simply because they have more real information to go by produced through their constant interaction with students (see here, minute 50:55). Great question.

We rely on stereotypes (and other cognitive shortcuts) more heavily when there are more unknowns to a situation – for example, when we don’t know a person well, when we are unfamiliar with the goals of the interaction, when the criteria for judgment are unclear or subjective, etc. This suggests that the more information we have about a person or situation, the less likely we are to automatically fill in potential (knowledge) gaps with more “generic” information (e.g., stereotypes). In fact, “individuating” – or gathering very specific information about a person’s background, tastes etc. — has been proposed as an effective “de-biasing” strategy. When you get to know somebody, you are more likely to base your judgments on the particulars of that person than on blanket characteristics, such as the person’s age, race, or gender. This suggests that teachers may be better positioned than other professionals (e.g., doctors who see patients sporadically for a few minutes at a time) to overcome potential biases.

I am not suggesting that teachers, because they are teachers, are immune to implicit biases – in fact there is some research documenting that they are not (see Kirwan Institute’s recent review, pp. 30-35). However, teachers may be better situated to combat these biases than professionals in other fields. Getting to know their students well is part of a teacher’s job description. Thus, a potential intervention aimed at breaking stereotypic associations might build on and support this aspect of teachers’ work – for example, by providing a structured and systematic way to gather information on students during the first weeks of the new school year.

In addition, teachers are well positioned to actually disrupt classroom (status) hierarchies (which can emerge among students based on characteristics such as race, gender, academic ability). For example, by (authentically) praising a low status student on something specific that the student did well, the teacher can effectively raise the social standing of that student in the classroom. This, in turn, can elevate both the student’s confidence and self-assessment (i.e., what the student thinks he/she is capable of accomplishing) as well as his/her peers’ expectations (i.e., what other classmates think she/he is capable of). This is a powerful way of breaking stereotypic associations and equalizing learning conditions in the classroom.

In sum, formal education, in and of itself, is not enough to disrupt associations that are deeply embedded in the culture. We are all profoundly aware of these associations (even when we don’t share them) and for that reason alone, our thoughts and behaviors can be subtly and implicitly influenced by them. Individuation (or gathering information about the specific person in front of you) can, however, be an effective strategy to break automatic associations. This technique can help you see (or assign more weight to) the particulars of a person before you consider his/her age, class, gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, etc.

In this respect, I noted that teachers may be better positioned than, say, doctors or judges, to individuate their students – and that this can facilitate more objective and less stereotypic judgments and more equitable classrooms. I also noted that there are strategies and tools that schools could take advantage of to support teachers’ natural desire to get to know their students well. In my next post, I will provide some additional ideas on how to do this, as well as more information on research-based strategies that have been shown to reduce implicit biases and what their implications might be for schools and educators.