An implicit bias is an automatic and unconscious attitude that affects a person’s judgment, decision, or behavior. Because the bias operates on an unconscious level, it can have effects in which people are completely unaware.
Greenwald and Banaji (1995) are often credited with offering a formal definition of implicit bias:
“… introspectively unidentified (or inaccurately identified) traces of past experience that mediate favorable or unfavorable feeling, thought, or action toward social objects” (p. 8).
A great deal of research on implicit bias has revealed numerous manifestations. For example, implicit bias has been shown to operate in the criminal justice system, workplace, school setting and healthcare system.
Implicit biases can have their effect even though the results may be counter to the person’s objectives or declared beliefs.
Although most people think of themselves as rational and logical human beings, it turns out that much of our thinking processes are flawed and can be swayed by factors that are outside our conscious awareness.
Implicit Bias Examples
1. Affinity Bias
People have a tendency to like people that are similar to themselves. When we meet someone that shares our values and beliefs, we feel a natural attraction to them. This often leads to people socializing and joining social groups of like-minded individuals.
Unfortunately, although this seems perfectly harmless, it does lead to several negative outcomes.
For example, when holding strong political views, people will form bonds with others that share those views. This limits the opportunities to understand alternative perspectives and can result in people becoming “set in their ways”.
Ideally, political discourse will occur among those with opposing views. This can facilitate mutual understanding and respect. That understanding and respect could lead to progress on controversial issues that would benefit society. However, the affinity bias makes this far less likely to occur.
2. Beauty Bias
Beauty bias refers to the way people are perceived based on their high level of physical attractiveness. Conventional wisdom holds that the more attractive a person is, the easier they have it in life.
People often believe that being attractive makes it easier to land a good job, climb the corporate ladder, and just more likely to be successful in life in general.
That may be true in some circumstances, but in others, it most definitely is not. For example, when a highly attractive female applies for a job that is physically demanding, they are likely to be judged as incapable.
In other circumstances, being attractive in the workplace may create jealousy in colleagues and lead to social isolation or the sabotaging of promotional opportunities.
Being beautiful is a double-edged sword.
Ageism refers to discrimination against an individual strictly based on their age. Although the term is usually used in the context of being directed toward older individuals, younger generations can also be subjected to ageism.
Ageism can appear in many forms and affect many aspects of daily life; some ramifications can be quite severe. For example, ageism can affect employment and promotional opportunities as well as treatment in the healthcare system.
According to the World Health Organization, ageism is associated with earlier death, risky health behaviors, social isolation, loneliness, and depression.
4. Affect Heuristic
The affect heuristic occurs when a person makes a judgment based on their current emotional state.
Instead of conducting a thorough analysis of the pros and cons of a situation, the final decision is heavily influenced by emotions. In this way, the affect heuristic is a type of mental shortcut.
We can see examples of the affect heuristic in everyday life. For example, when being in a good mood, a person is open to suggestions and more likely to agree to the requests of others.
If a friend or colleague suggests a particular restaurant for lunch, the response may not be so much guided by an objective analysis of the type of food served or price point, but instead is influenced by a general state of positivity.
Likewise, when in a bad mood, people become a lot less agreeable. Suggestions are rejected outright and immediately. No need for analysis or deliberation, the answer is just “no”.
5. Anchoring Bias
Anchoring bias occurs when a person’s judgment is unduly influenced by an initial piece of information that serves as a reference point for the subsequent opinion.
This can lead to skewed judgments that are not based on a completely objective analysis.
Tversky and Kahneman (1974) identified the anchoring bias and provided a credible explanation:
“In many situations, people make estimates by starting from an initial value that is adjusted to yield the final answer. The initial value, or starting point, may be suggested by the formulation of the problem, or it may be the result of a partial computation … different starting points yield different estimates, which are biased toward the initial values. We call this phenomenon anchoring” (p. 1128).
For example, a car salesperson may start with a price point that is quite high. Then, when the price is lowered, a customer may think they are getting a bargain.
In reality, however, the price is still high. The salesperson has just used a high anchor to manipulate the customer’s perception of “value”.
6. Authority Bias
Authority bias is the tendency to believe, support, and obey people in positions of authority.
We are more likely to believe their judgments are correct, even if we may initially disagree.
The most famous psychological study on obedience to authority was conducted by Stanley Milgram (1963) in the 1960s and 70s. In this study, participants were told they were part of a study investigating the effects of electric shock on learning.
Participants were told that each time the person in the other room gave a wrong answer to a test question, they should be given an electric shock.
The results revealed that 65 percent of participants administered increasingly higher levels of shock, to the highest level, which was marked as “lethal,” despite the cries and screams heard in the other room.
The shocks were not actually delivered, and the person in the other room was an actor, but the findings of this study are astonishing.
They demonstrate the power of authority figures and the tendency for people to follow directions, seemingly no matter the consequences.
7. Confirmation Bias
Confirmation bias is one of the most prevalent biases of all. It refers to the tendency of people to look for information that confirms their opinion or beliefs.
For example, when deciding upon which news channel to watch, most people will choose the one that is consistent with their political ideology.
Other examples include following people on social media that agree with our views or reading articles with headlines that match our perceptions of the world.
One of the many downsides of confirmation bias is that a person closes themselves off to encountering information that is more balanced. This means that instead of continuously evolving over a lifespan, nothing changes internally.
Although having our opinions confirmed on a regular basis can be good for one’s self-esteem, it also impedes personal growth.
8. Conformity Bias
People are indeed social animals. In nearly every culture throughout history, humans are known to form groups with each other, both large and small.
Of course, there are many survival benefits to existing in groups, such as sharing resources and protection from predators.
Unfortunately, conformity bias can also lead to shockingly horrid behavior. The tendency to go along with others can lead to what is sometimes called the “crowd mentality”.
Instead of using personal judgment and internal moral standards, being surrounded by others can overwhelm a person’s judgment.
Examples include succumbing to peer pressure to engage in risky behavior or participating in brawls even though a person has no vested interest in the situation.
Resisting the pressure to conform takes a strong will and may lead to somewhat negative consequences. Conformity bias may be one of the most dangerous biases that people possess.
9. Halo Effect
The halo effect occurs when we have a positive impression of someone based on our perception of them in a specific domain.
That impression then carries over to other domains. If they are good at A, then they must also be good at B, C, and D.
Psychologist Edward Thorndike (1920) first discovered the halo effect in one of his earlier studies, where supervisors’ ratings of their employees “were apparently affected by a marked tendency to think of the person in general as rather good or rather inferior and to color the judgments of the qualities by this general feeling” (p. 25).
The halo effect can be seen in marketing and advertising campaign strategies, consumer behavior, the classroom, and just about any event that involves people rating the performance of others.
10. Horns Effect
The horns effect is a bias that is similar to the halo effect, except instead of creating a positive impression of another person, the impression is negative.
So, if we first learn of something negative about an individual, that will affect our impression of them in other ways. We will rate their abilities and traits negatively, even if we have no information to support those conclusions.
The best demonstration of this phenomenon comes from a study by Nisbett and Wilson (1977). Participants watched a video that portrayed the same instructor as either likable or cold. Afterward, they rated the instructor on a variety of dimensions. The results were quite pronounced:
“A substantial majority of the subjects who saw the teacher in his warm guise rated his physical appearance as appealing, whereas a substantial majority of those who saw him in his cold guise rated his appearance as irritating. A majority of warm condition subjects rated the teacher’s mannerisms as appealing, whereas a majority of cold condition subjects rated bis mannerisms as irritating” (p. 253).
11. Hindsight Bias
Hindsight bias refers to the tendency of people to overestimate their ability to predict what will happen in the future.
For example, when an unusual event occurs, some people will say that they “knew all along”. Even when not making any prior prediction regarding that event, the statement will still be made.
This is because human beings have a need to believe that their world is stable and predictable. When events occur that are counter to that presumption, it shakes our sense of stability and usually results in some kind of cognitive distortion to restore order.
That distortion often comes in the form of believing that we foresaw the event before it occurred.
In other circumstances, it can serve as an impression management strategy. Because a person does not want to look bad, they may say they anticipated a certain outcome in order to protect their self-esteem.
12. Overconfidence Bias
The overconfidence bias occurs when a person overestimates their intellect or abilities.
A person may believe they are capable of performing tasks that they are not actually capable of accomplishing.
Examples of the overconfidence bias can be seen in many aspects of daily life.
- The student who fails to study enough for an upcoming exam because they believe they are ready but ends up earning a D.
- The athlete who always wants to take the last shot but usually misses.
- The novice stock trader who thinks they can do better than professionals that have been in the business for decades.
In some circumstances, overestimating one’s abilities can have severe negative consequences.
13. Perception Bias
Perception bias is a generic term that refers to the mental shortcuts that people use to make sense of the world.
Perception bias includes lots of other biases that involve filtering information based on a preconceived notion, emotional state, or existing perspective.
Because people are simply bombarded with massive amounts of information, it is simply not possible to engage in a thorough analysis of all that we encounter. This would take too much time and absorb too much of our cognitive capacity.
Therefore, it is beneficial to take shortcuts in our thinking processes. Unfortunately, these shortcuts can rely on stereotypes or misleading information which clouds our judgment.
14. Recency Bias
People will often rely on the most recent information they have to guide their opinion or judgment. This is called the recency bias.
Instead of considering all the data available when forming an opinion, most people will be heavily influenced on whatever they have encountered most recently.
For example, the closing arguments in a legal case will be the easiest to remember when jurors are in deliberations regarding the verdict.
News stories about traumatic events such as an airplane crash or shark attack will have a strong influence on people’s perception of risk that actually overestimates the likelihood of those events.
In social relations, sometimes the last words a person spoke to someone will be what they remember most. This can affect their impression of that person and either be positive or negative, depending on what those last words were about.
15. Status Quo Bias
The status quo bias is a preference for keeping things the way they are. In a sense, it is more than just a cognitive bias because it can also be grounded in an emotional reaction to change.
Change can sometimes be scary. It contains many unknowns, while the situation we are in is familiar and may seem safer than going through change. So, the status quo bias is just as much an emotional reaction as it is a cognitive shortcut.
The status quo bias can explain why a person is sometimes very reluctant to leave an unhappy relationship. Terminating a relationship means going back into the dating pool, which is often full of disappointment.
The status quo can also explain a person’s hesitancy to leave their job and pursue their dreams. Having a stable income feels safe and provides a sense of security. This can make it difficult to leave one’s comfort zone to pursue an endeavor that may result in absolute failure.
16. Cultural Bias
Cultural bias happens when we process what we learn about another culture based on our own culture’s values and beliefs.
This is also sometimes referred to as ethnocentrism.
Instead of accepting and tolerating the ways of another culture, it can be easy to judge another culture through our existing worldview.
This makes it difficult to understand the perspective of people from foreign countries or those that have different religious beliefs.
For example, people from Western countries have strong beliefs about equality in the workplace, while other cultures may be more accepting of authoritarian leadership styles.
Table etiquette is another example of when cultural bias can occur. After being raised to share food from all the same bowls placed in the center of the table, it may seem selfish to see that people in a Western culture prefer to each have their own plate.
Implicit biases can occur in a surprisingly wide range of situations. Because an implicit bias operates at a level beyond conscious awareness, it can affect our judgments automatically.
These biases come in many forms. For example, when we form a general impression of someone, that will cloud our judgment of them in other ways, either positively (halo effect) or negatively (horns effect).
Our opinions of the elderly (ageism) or the abnormally attractive (beauty bias), can lead to negative assumptions about their abilities or level of intelligence.
Moreover, when traveling to a foreign country, it may be difficult to accept customs that are so disparate from our own (cultural bias) and make us more likely to seek out and socialize with others that share our ways (affinity bias).
As long as people will need to think, there will be biases, both good and bad. It’s a part of human nature that is difficult to overcome.
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