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Eye on Psi Chi: Fall 2018

Eye on Psi Chi

Fall 2018 | Volume 23 | Issue 1


Do You Recognize Your Implicit Biases? With Mahzarin Banaji, PhD

Meg Sutter,
University of Tennessee at Chattanooga

View this issue in Digital and PDF formats.

We’ve all been there. You meet a new person, and, without intention, the first thought you have is a stereotype. In that moment, what do you do? How do you feel?

Even though it is quite ordinary that this should happen, research shows that these thoughts and feelings can have impact on our behavior. You can choose to ignore the implicit bias your mind automatically produced, or you can choose to outsmart your mind. Dr. Mahzarin Banaji has good news: your implicit bias isn’t necessarily your true self; it’s just your default self. What you choose to do depends on the environment you create for yourself and others.

Dr. Banaji is a cofounder of the widely popular Project Implicit (Harvard’s online Implicit Association Test, or IAT). According to the test’s website, “The IAT measures the strength of associations between concepts (e.g. black people, gay people) and evaluations (e.g. good, bad) or stereotypes (e.g. athletic, clumsy)” (Project Implicit, 2011). By measuring the time it takes to sort words into categories, the IAT reveals implicit bias; and with millions of participants, it is no secret that people want to understand their hidden selves. As Dr. Banaji has found along the way, overcoming our minds’ biases can be accomplished, with time and practice.

She says, “We have to use the same attitude about how to improve our minds, as we do toward improving our bodies. Imagine that I explained to you what sugar and fat do to your body’s metabolism, and I teach you about exercising and eating right. At the end of my lecture, would you have lost any weight?” So how do we change? According to Dr. Banaji, “There are many aspects of our lives where the first thought or the most natural action isn’t the one that’s best for us. To engage in constant improvement of ourselves is what our species has been doing for a long time. We call it becoming civilized. We learn to move in the direction of what is good and right. We learn and practice to allow the better parts of our nature to express themselves.”

In the following interview, Dr. Banaji explains the importance of feeling responsible, not fearful or guilty, when confronting implicit bias. Responsibility leads to truth, action, and greater understanding, which in turn produces better relationships, research, communities, and countries.

Acknowledge Your Bias

Dr. Banaji understands firsthand the disappointment that comes from discovering your own bias: “I will be honest, when I took my very first IAT, I didn’t think I would ever share my score with another soul; it wasn’t who I thought I was. The data were not consistent with the view I had of myself.” Despite Dr. Banaji’s original embarrassment, however, she used disappointment to make changes in the way she understood herself—something she hopes for everyone taking the IAT. “That day was the most transformative day of my life.”

After Dr. Banaji took the IAT, she says, “I learned something about myself—not something I was pleased to see—but that’s how modern humans are different, right? We don’t shy away from knowledge that is scary or disappointing. If we had that attitude, we wouldn’t do anything about the most important problems we confront, like climate change. But we are constantly seeking to improve our environment, and that involves improving ourselves.”

The implications of implicit bias are significant, and the relevance is for all—IAT-takers, Psi Chi members, even psychologists who know the facts of the research—to accept responsibility for how to move forward. Dr. Banaji explains, “Facing the facts is generally a good idea, but as scientists, it is what we especially hold ourselves to. We measure ourselves by how much unpalatable information we can dig up, hold it up for all to see, until we are compelled to do something about it.”

Individual research coupled with institutional support is critical. Dr. Banaji says, “Individual actions are important. But they are enhanced, sometimes exponentially, when a group decides that we as a society, a city, a school, a neighborhood, or a country will act to put our children and ourselves in healthier social environments. It’s not that different than wanting clean air. We are asking: what is good for mental health? How can we make decisions of which we are proud because they are more accurate, because they fit with our moral values.”

How Bias Influences Action

As a psychologist, Dr. Banaji understands that the sources of influence on human beings are many: by “the immediate moment, our lifelong experiences, the broader culture, our individual biology, and our make-up as a particular species.” All of these things influence our ways of thinking including the biases we have. But it doesn’t mean you are your bias. On the contrary, Dr. Banaji says, “The implicit stuff isn’t any more our ‘real self’; it’s just one side. It needs special attention because it’s a side of ourselves we don’t know about because it’s hidden from our conscious awareness.”

Voting is a great example of understanding individual choice versus bias. Dr. Banaji says, “If I decide that I am going to vote for Candidate X, even if my IAT shows a preference for the other candidate, I can walk into the voting booth and exert my conscious attitude and vote for Candidate X.” You can choose to exert your conscious choice over the less conscious one—but only if you’re willing to know about both. “You may realize, because you’ve given it deliberate thought, that your implicit preference is leading you toward the candidate who feels comfortable because of similarity or familiarity; that the candidate you showed implicit preference for may be more physically attractive. But your final choice needs to be driven by a different set of criteria. What’s good for me and my society?”

Lose the Fear

Humans enjoy comfort, and stereotypes are comfortable. But who would we be if we didn’t experience new things, meet new people, and learn from original discomfort? Dr. Banaji agrees, “It took our ancestors nerve to travel far away, to try a new food, to go off to a foreign country; but they did it! We’ve been doing it for thousands of years.” Understanding our bias and choosing to grow in a new direction can feel just as nerve-wracking as trying on anything less familiar that’s known to be safe. But the rewards!

Laughing, Dr. Banaji continues: “Our ancestors at some point, in some place, got on a plank of wood and said, ‘I’m running away from home! I’m going off to some unknown place, and who knows if I’ll get there, but I sure am going to try!’ We have both parts to us—the part that seeks familiarity and safety, and the part that seeks new experiences and new understanding.” Each part is useful, as long as we listen to both of them!

You Are How You Grow

Feeling guilty or uncomfortable with your IAT score are not the response Banaji hopes for. “Implicit measures should not produce fear in us. These tests simply tell you about a part of yourself of which you are not aware.”

Our self is made up of everything—the implicit and conscious parts, as well as our actions. Individuals have a hand in how they evolve: Isn’t that the greatest measure of who you are? Dr. Banaji says, “One of our great qualities as a species is that we do strive to be right and we do strive to be good. Both of those require that we outsmart our minds, because our minds—our brains—evolved in a very different world than the world we face today.” There’s no need to be afraid, but there is a great need to shake off the guilt and move in the direction of becoming responsible for who we are and to strive for change.

Dr. Banaji’s Hope for the Future—YOU

Dr. Banaji has received some backlash for her work on implicit bias, but she believes that discoveries that make us uncomfortable are often hard to accept: “Were scientists in the 1600s thrilled to discover the earth was not at the center of the universe? No! Life would have been very easy for Galileo if he had never had to tell the Vatican about what he saw through a telescope. It would have been really easy for Charles Darwin—a religious man—to never reveal that his observations meant human beings came to be on this earth in a very different way than God placing them there.” Although Dr. Banaji is confident that her work isn’t earth-shaking, she concludes that new ideas however big or small do encounter resistance. “In each of these moments, we have a choice of whether to speak about it or to withhold. My colleagues and I chose to speak.”

Although her research may cause discomfort to those who’d like to believe that implicit bias isn’t real, or doesn’t affect behavior, Dr. Banaji continues on. She says, “I began with the premise that it is my job as a scientist to discover things, and if the discovery makes people happy, so be it. But if the discovery does not make people happy, I can’t let that determine what I do. That’s not what tenure is for.” She continues, “This doesn’t mean that I don’t care about how people respond. I care deeply! Like any other being, I want to be understood for what I’m saying, I want to be challenged so that the work can improve, I would like people to see that this discovery has implications for them and their children. I want them to feel a sense of responsibility to think harder and then to act differently.”

“Engage with people honestly,” Dr. Banaji explains. “Tell them that we are in the same position they’re in, that we the scientists are not sitting on some mountaintop showing no bias while the people we’re testing do. We are in this together.”

She says, “I am one of the luckiest of scientists, because I get to be a subject in my own experiments. Not many can have this experience. A biologist cannot become a cell to know what that feels like. A physicist cannot become a proton to see it from the inside. And even most psychologists, who study conscious thought, cannot. But because we are figuring out ways to interrogate the less conscious sides of our minds, the parts that are not within our own control, the parts that operate automatically, we can have our tests reveal sides of ourselves we didn’t know we had.” Dr. Banaji can teach people about bias by telling them about her own. It’s a powerful communication, she says, to say, “ ‘Let me tell you about my bias. This is something I discovered about myself, and it was not a pleasant moment.’ Nobody with any neurons in their head would say they don’t want to hear what you have to say. We want to know about many things but most of all ourselves, our own minds.”

Her message to Psi Chi is simple: “The future is you—members of Psi Chi! You are young and fearless. Every decade I’ve taught about this research, it becomes easier. People are less and less scared compared to earlier generations. So I’m assuming that your generation, the generation that took IATs in 5th grade, you don’t fear such knowledge. People will look back one day and be surprised to hear that there was a time when data of this sort were viewed as difficult or problematic.”

“I hope young people will approach their research with a desire to learn what it means about the human mind, about them and their culture. My colleagues often wish that someone will develop a better method than the IAT. It has been around for 20 years now, and something better than it as a measure of implicit cognition should be invented.”

Dr. Banaji believes understanding bias and taking action will bring change. She says, “I long for a day when my implicit attitudes have no impact on my behavior, when my attitudes have been made so conscious to me that I act in a way that’s good for me and my society, when I’m not driven by what’s implicit but what I have explicitly chosen.” So what will you do the next time you meet someone different? Or experience something new? Take it as an opportunity to acknowledge the implicit bias, question your intuition, let go of any sense of guilt or embarrassment, delve in to discover something truer and speak it.


About the IAT. Project Implicit. Retrieved from

Mahzarin R. Banaji, PhD, was Halleck Professor of Psychology at Yale and is Cabot Professor of Social Ethics at Harvard University. She was named Harvard College Professor for excellence in undergraduate teaching and advising and won Yale’s Hixon Prize for Teaching Excellence. Dr. Banaji was elected to the American Academy of Arts & Sciences and is Herbert Simon Fellow of the Association of Political and Social Science. She received APA’s Award for Distinguished Scientific Contribution and is William James Fellow of APS for “a lifetime of significant intellectual contributions to the basic science of psychology.” Dr. Banaji is the recipient of honorary degrees from Barnard, Smith, Colgate, Carnegie-Mellon, and University of Helsinki.

Copyright 2018 (Vol. 23, Iss. 1) Psi Chi, the International Honor Society in Psychology

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