February 11, 2019

Unconscious bias: what is it and can it be eliminated?

By Hannah Devlin

In the ranking of taboos, racism and sexism come close to the top of the list. So it is perhaps unsurprising that the concept of unconscious or implicit bias has gripped the popular imagination to a greater degree than any other idea in psychology in recent decades.

Spearheaded by a team of social psychologists at the University of Washington and Yale, the Implicit Association Test (IAT) promised to lift the veil on people’s subconscious attitudes towards others. Upon publishing their landmark paper in 1998, the team described “a new tool that measures the unconscious roots of prejudice” that they said affected 90-95% of people.

Unconscious bias – the subject of the Guardian’s Bias in Britain series – offered a new explanation for why, despite equalities apparently being enshrined in law, society still looked so unfair. And by framing prejudice as something that could be involuntarily soaked up from the world around us, the IAT provided people and businesses with an acceptable way to talk about the problem.