There has been much written about implicit bias, and society has worked hard to eradicate it. Yet, one recent study and one news article indicate that however hard society has tried consciously to be rid of implicit biases, unconsciously, they still exist.

In a June 20, 2016 article posted on LiveScience entitled “Male Doctors, Female Nurses: Subconscious Stereotypes Hard to Budge”, the author Stephanie Pappas discusses a study indicating that unconsciously people still associate a male name with being a doctor and a female name with being a nurse even though their conscious answers are different. That is, when asked about two different names, their conscious brain will cause them to respond by stating that the person could be either a doctor or a nurse. But when given an implicit association test, their unconscious brains take over, and the stereotyping occurs; male names are associated with doctors and female names are associated with nurses. In sum, our conscious attitudes tend to be more enlightened (or politically correct?) than our subconscious ones. (Id.)

To determine this the researchers, Jack Cao, a graduate student at Harvard and his advisor Mahzarian Banaji, a social psychologist at Harvard


…had their study participants complete one of these implicit-association tasks, and also asked the individuals to report their conscious beliefs about Jonathan’s and Elizabeth’s professions. The investigators then told the participants directly either that Jonathan was a doctor and Elizabeth a nurse, or that Elizabeth was a doctor and Jonathan a nurse.

Unsurprisingly, the participants had no problem repeating these facts back to the researchers. But the implicit-association task revealed that no matter what the participants had been told, they still subconsciously saw Jonathan as a doctor and Elizabeth as a nurse. 

“When we look at people’s implicit responses, they don’t update quite as quickly or easily or accurately” as explicit beliefs, ….

The researchers repeated their experiments with nearly 3,400 participants. In addition, the scientists varied the circumstances slightly: In one study, they used the names Richard and Jennifer and the professions doctor and artist. In another, the researchers picked made-up names that people wouldn’t be able to associate with anyone they knew: Lapper for the man and Affina for the woman. In both cases, the researchers found the same results. People who were told that the man was in the female-stereotyped profession and the woman in the male-stereotyped profession had no trouble accepting those facts consciously, but still made implicit judgments based on stereotype.

In a final study, the researchers used two male names, Matthew and Benjamin, and the professions scientist and artist. These results showed that, without stereotype to rely on, people did update their subconscious beliefs easily; their implicit associations matched their explicit beliefs.

“There seems to be some stickiness in our implicit beliefs,” Cao said. In their paper, published today in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), Cao and Banaji likened the phenomenon to the old riddle about a father and son who are in a terrible car accident. The father dies, and the son is rushed to the hospital, where the surgeon takes one look and says, “I can’t operate on this patient! He’s my son.”

“In 1985, one of the authors of the present paper attempted to solve this riddle by weakly offering that perhaps the surgeon was the biological father and the other man was the adoptive father,” the researchers wrote. “Much to this author’s chagrin, the correct answer is that the surgeon is the boy’s mother.” (Id.)

While this study may involve doctors and nurses, unfortunately, this stereotyping is alive and well in the legal profession. On June 30, 2016, published an article entitled “Lack of Women Arbitrators Stems from ‘Institutional Bias,’ says JAMS Leader.“ Chris Poole, the chief executive officer of JAMS is quoted as stating that this lack of women arbitrators stems from stereotyping, (aka implicit or unconscious bias). Poole notes that in law, there has been a long tradition of going with the safe choice: an old guy. Even when the list of arbitrators given to parties contains an even number of men and of women, he notes that men tend to pick men and women are picking men as well. And as has been noted in the past, men tend to be chosen for the complex commercial cases while women are chosen more often for labor and employment (and other areas of the law one typically associates with women).

So, even though more than half the students at law schools are women, as are associates at law firms, Poole notes that only 19 percent are partners in law firms and only 23 percent of the arbitrators are women.

Thus, to quote a very old Virginia Slims commercial, while “ you’ve come a long way, baby”, ( ) stereotyping with its implicit biases still has a long way to go.

… Just something to think about.


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