The journal Psychological Inquire publishes theoretical articles that are accompanied by commentaries. In a recent issue, prominent implicit cognition researchers discussed the meaning of the term implicit. This blog post differs from the commentaries by researchers in the field, by providing an outsider perspective and by focusing on the importance of communicating research findings clearly to the general public. This purpose of definitions was largely ignored by researchers who are more focused on communicating with each other than with the general public. I will show that this unique outsider perspective favors a definition of implicit bias in terms of the actual research that has been conducted under the umbrella of implicit social cognition research rather than proposing a definition that renders 30 years of research useless with a simple stroke of a pen. If social cognition researchers want to communicate about implicit bias as empirical scientists they have to define implicit bias as effects of automatically activated information (associations, stereotypes, attitudes) on behavior. This is what they have studied for 30 years. Defining implicit bias as unconscious bias is not helpful because 30 years of research have failed to provide any evidence that people can act in a biased way without awareness. Although unconscious biases may occur, there is currently no scientific evidence to inform the public about unconscious biases. While the existing research on automatically activated stereotypes and attitudes has problems, the topic remains important. As the term implicit bias has caught on, it can be used in communications with the public about, but it should be made clear that implicit does not mean unconscious.
Psychologists are notoriously sloppy with language. This leads to misunderstandings and unnecessary conflicts among scientists. However, the bigger problem is a break-down in communication with the general public. This is particularly problematic in social psychology because research on social issues can influence public discourse and ultimately policy decisions.
One of the biggest case-studies of conceptual confusion that had serious real-world consequences is the research on implicit cognition that created the popular concept of implicit bias. Although the term implicit bias is widely used to talk about racism, the term lacks clear meaning.
The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy defines implicit bias as a tendency to “act on the basis of prejudice and stereotypes without intending to do so.” However, lack of intention (not wanting to) is only one of several meanings of the term implicit. Another meaning of the word implicit is automatic activation of thoughts. For example, a Scientific American article describes implicit bias as a “tendency for stereotype-confirming thoughts to pass spontaneously through our minds.” Notably, this definition of implicit bias clearly implies that people are aware of the activated stereotype. The stereotype-confirming thought is in people’s mind and not activated in some other area of the brain that is not accessible to consciousness. This definition also does not imply that implicit bias results in biased behavior because awareness makes it possible to control the influence of activated stereotypes on behavior.
Merriam Webster Dictionary offers another definition of implicit bias as “a bias or prejudice that is present but not consciously held or recognized.” In contrast to the first two meanings of implicit bias, this definition suggests that implicit bias may occur without awareness; that is implicit bias = unconscious bias.
The different definitions of implicit bias lead to very different explanations of biased behavior. One explanation assumes that implicit biases can be activated and guide behavior without awareness and individuals who act in a biased way may either fail to recognize their biases or make up some false explanation for their biased behaviors after the fact. This idea is akin to Freud’s notion of a powerful, autonomous unconscious (the Id) that can have subversive effects on behavior that contradict the values of a conscious, moral self (Super-Ego). Given the persistent influence of Freud on contemporary culture, this idea of implicit bias is popular and reinforced by the Project Implicit website that offers visitors tests to explore their hidden (hidden = unconscious) biases.
The alternative interpretation of implicit bias is less mysterious and more mundane. It means that our brain constantly retrieves information from memory that is related to the situation we are in. This process does not have a filter to retrieve only information that we want. As a result, we sometimes have unwanted thoughts. For example, even individuals who do not want to be prejudice will sometimes have unwanted stereotypes and associated negative feelings pop into their mind (Scientific American). No psychoanalysis or implicit test is needed to notice that our memory has stored stereotypes. In safe contexts, we may even laugh about them (Family Guy). In theory, awareness that a stereotype was activated also makes it possible to make sure that it does not influence behavior. This may even be the main reason for our ability to notice what our brain is doing. Rather than acting in a reflexive way to a situation, awareness makes it possible to respond more flexible to a situation. When implicit is defined as automatic activation of a thought, the distinction between implicit and explicit bias becomes minor and academic because the processes that retrieve information information from memory are automatic. The only difference between implicit and explicit retrieval of information is that the process may be triggered spontaneously by something in our environment or by a deliberate search for information.
After more than 30 years of research on implicit cognitions (Fazio, Sanbonmatsu, Powell, Kardes, 1986), implicit social cognition researchers increasingly recognize the need for clearer definitions of the term implicit (Gawronski, Ledgerwood, & Eastwick, 20222a), but there is little evidence that they can agree on a definition (Gawronski, Ledgerwood, & Eastwick, 20222b). Gawronski et al. (2022a, 2022b) propose to limit the meaning of implicit bias to unconscious biases; that is, individuals are unaware that their behavior was influenced by activation of negative stereotypes or affects/attitudes. “instances of bias can be described as implicit if respondents are unaware of the effect of social category cues on their behavioral response” (p. 140). I argue that this definition is problematic because there is no scientific evidence to support the hypothesis that prejudice is unconscious. Thus, the term cannot be used to communicate scientific results that have been obtained by implicit cognition researchers over the past three decades because these studies did not study unconscious bias.
Implicit Bias Is Not Unconscious Bias
Gawronski et al. note that their decision to limit the term implicit to mean unconscious is arbitrary. “A potential objection against our arguments might be that they are based on a particular interpretation of implicit in IB that treats the term as synonymous with unconscious” (p. 145). Gawronski et al. argue in favor of their definition because “unconscious biases have the potential to cause social harm in ways that are fundamentally different from conscious biases that are unintentional and hard-to-control” (p. 146). The key words in this argument is “have the potential,” which means that there is no scientific evidence that shows different effects of biases with and without awareness of bias. Thus, the distinction is merely a theoretical, academic one without actual real-world implications. Gawronski et al. agree with this assessment when they point out that existing implicit cognition research “provides no information about IB [implicit bias] if IB is understood as an unconscious effect of social category cues on behavioral responses. It seems bizarre to define the term implicit bias in a way that makes all of the existing implicit cognition research irrelevant. A more reasonable approach would be to define implicit bias in a way that is more consistent with the work of implicit bias researchers. As several commentators pointed out, the most widely used meaning of implicit is automatic activation of information stored in memory about social groups. In fact, Gawronski himself used the term implicit in this sense and repeatedly pointed out that implicit does not mean unconscious (i.e., without awareness) (Appendix 1).
Defining the term implicit as automatic activation makes sense because the standard experimental procedure to study implicit cognition is based on presenting stimuli (words, faces, names) related to a specific group and to examine how these stimuli influence behaviors such as the speed of pressing a button on a keyboard. The activation of stereotypic information is automatic because participants are not told to attend to these stimuli or even to ignore them. Sometimes the stimuli are also presented in subtle ways to make it less likely that participants consciously attend to them. The question is always whether these stimuli activate stereotypes and attitudes stored in memory and how activation of this information influences behavior. If behavior is influenced by the stimuli, it suggests that stereotypic information was activated – with or without awareness. The evidence from studies like these provides the scientific basis for claims about implicit bias. Thus, implicit bias is basically operationally defined as systematic effects of automatically activated information about groups on behavior.
The aim of implicit bias research is to study real-word incidences of prejudice under controlled laboratory conditions. A recent incidence at racism shows how activation of stereotypes can have harmful consequences for victims and perpetrators of racist behavior .
University of Kentucky student who repeatedly hurled racist slur at Black student permanently banned from campus
The question of consciousness is secondary. What is important is how individuals can prevent harmful consequences of prejudice. What can individuals do to avoid storing negative stereotypes and attitudes in the first place? What can individuals do to weaken stored memories and attitudes? What can individuals do to make it less likely that stereotypes are activated? What can individuals do to control the influence of attitudes when they are activated? All of these questions are important and are related to the concept of implicit as automatic activation of attitudes. The only reason to emphasize unconscious process would be a scenario where individuals are unable to control the influence of information that influences behavior without awareness. However, given the lack of evidence that unconscious biases exist, it is currently unnecessary to focus on this scenario. Clearly, many instances of biases occur with awareness (“White teacher in Texas fired after telling students his race is ‘the superior one’”).
Unfortunately, it may be surprising for some readers to learn that implicit does not mean unconscious because the term implicit bias has been popularized in part to make a distinction between well-known forms of bias and prejudice and a new form of bias that can influence behavior even when individuals are consciously trying to be unbiased. These hidden biases occur against individuals’ best intentions because they exist in a blind spot of consciousness. This meaning of implicit bias was popularized by Banaji and Greenwald (2013), who also founded the Project Implicit website that provides individuals with feedback about their hidden biases; akin to psychoanalysts who can recover repressed memories.
Gawronski et al. (2022b) point out that Greenwald and Banaji’s theory of unconscious bias evolved independently of research by other implicit bias researchers who focused on automaticity and were less concerned about the distinction between conscious and unconscious biases. Gawronski’s definition of implicit bias as unconscious bias favors Banaji and Greenwald’s school of thought (hidden bias) over other research programs (automatically activated biases). The problem with this decision is that Greenwald and Banaji recently walked back their claims about unconscious biases and no longer maintain that the effects they studies were obtained without awareness (Implicit = Indirect & Indirect ≠ Unconscious, Greenwald & Banaji, 2017). The reversal of their theoretical position is evident in their statement that “even though the present authors find themselves occasionally lapsing to use implicit and explicit as if they had conceptual meaning [unconscious vs. conscious], they strongly endorse the empirical understanding of the implicit– explicit distinction” (p. 892). It is puzzling to see Gawronski arguing for a definition that is based on a theory that the authors no longer endorse. Given the lack of scientific evidence that stereotypes regularly lead to biases without awareness, this might be the time to agree on a definition that matches the actual research by implicit cognition researchers, and the most fitting definition would be automatic activation of stereotypes and attitudes, not unconscious causes of behavior.
Gawronski et al. (2022a) also falsely imply that implicit cognition researchers have ignored the distinction between conscious and unconscious biases. In reality, numerous studies have tried to demonstrate that implicit biases can occur without awareness. To study unconscious biases, social cognition researchers have relied heavily on an experimental procedure known as subliminal priming. In a subliminal priming study, a stimulus (prime) is presented very briefly, outside of the focus of attention, and/or with a masking stimuli. If a manipulation check shows that individuals have no awareness of the prime and the prime influences behavior, the effect appears to occur without awareness. Several studies suggested that racial primes can influence behavior without awareness (Bargh et al., 1996; Davis, 1989).
However, the credibility of these results has been demolished by the replication crisis in social psychology (Open Science Collaboration, 2015; Schimmack, 2020). Priming research has been singled out as the field with the biggest replication problems (Kahneman, 2012). When asked to replicate their own findings, leading priming researchers like Bargh refused to do so. Thus, while subliminal priming studies started the implicit revolution (Greenwald & Banaji, 2017), the revolution imploded over the past decade when doubts about the credibility of the original findings increased.
Unfortunately, researchers within the field of implicit bias research often ignore the replication crisis and cite questionable evidence as if it provided solid evidence for unconscious biases. For example, Gawronski et al. (2022b) suggest that unconscious biases may contribute to racial disparities in use-of-force errors such as the high-profile killing of Philando Castile. To make this case, they use a (single) study of 58 White undergraduate students (Correll, Wittenbrink, Crawford, & Sadler, 2015, Study 3). The study asked participants to make shoot vs. no-shoot decisions in a computer task (game) that presented pictures of White or Black men holding a gun or another object. Participants were instructed to make one quick decision within 630 milliseconds and another decision without time restriction. Gawronski et al. suggest that failures to correct an impulsive error given ample time to do so constitutes evidence of unconscious bias. They summarized the results as evidence that “unconscious effects on basic perceptual processes play a major role in tasks that more closely resemble real-world settings” (p. 226).
Fact checking reveals that this characterization of the study and its results is at least misleading, if not outright false. First, it is important to realize that the critical picture was presented for only 175ms and immediately replaced by another picture to wipe out visual memory. Although this is not a strictly subliminal presentation of stimuli, it is clearly a suboptimal presentation of stimuli. As a result, participants sometimes had to guess what the object was. They also had no other information to know whether their initial perception was correct or incorrect. The fact that participants’ performance improved without time pressure may be due to response errors under time pressure and this improvement was evident independent of the race of the men in the picture.
Without time pressure, participants shot 85% of armed Black men and 83% of armed White men. For unarmed men, participants shot 28% Black men and 25% White men. The statistical comparison of these differences showed weak effect of a systematic bias. The comparison for unarmed men produced a p-value that was just significant with the standard criterion of alpha = .05 criterion, F(1,53) = 6.65, p = .013, but not the more stringent criterion of alpha = .005 that is used to predict a high chance of replication. The same is true for the comparison of responses to pictures of unarmed men, F(1,53) = 4.96, p =.031. To my knowledge, this study has not been replicated and Gawronski et al.’s claim rests entirely on this single study.
Even if these effects could be replicated in the laboratory, they do not provide any information about unconscious biases in the real world because the study lacks ecological validity. To make claims about the real world, it is necessary to study police officers in simulations of real world scenarios (Andersen, Di Nota, Boychuk, Schimmack, & Collins, 2021). This research is rare, difficult, and has not yet produced conclusive results. Andersen et al. (2021) found a small racial bias, but the sample was too small to provide meaningful information about the amount of racial bias in the real world. Most important, however, real-word scenarios provide ample information to see whether a suspect is Black or White and is armed or not. The real decision is often whether use of force is warranted or not. Racial biases in these shooting errors are important, but they are not unconscious biases.
Contrary to Gawronski et al., I do not believe that social cognition researchers focus on automatic biases rather than unconscious biases was a mistake. The real mistake was the focus on reaction times in artificial computer tasks rather than studying racial biases in the real world. As a result, thirty years of research on automatic biases has produced little insights into racial biases in the real world. To move the field towards the study of unconscious biases would be a mistake. Instead, social cognition researchers need to focus on outcome variables that matter.
The term implicit bias can have different meanings. Gawronski et al. (2022a) proposed to limit the meaning of the term to unconscious bias. I argue that this definition of implicit bias is not useful because most studies of implicit cognition are studies in which racial stereotypes and attitudes toward stigmatized groups are automatically activated. In contrast, priming studies that tried to distinguish between conscious and unconscious activation of this information have been discredited during the replication crisis and there exists no credible empirical evidence to suggest that unconscious biases exist or contribute to real-world behavior. Thus, funding a new research agenda focusing on unconscious biases may waste resources that are better spent on real-world studies of racial biases. Evidently, this conclusion diverges from the conclusion of implicit cognition researchers who are interested in continuing their laboratory studies, but they have failed to demonstrate that their work makes a meaningful contribution to society. To make research on automatic biases more meaningful, implicit bias research needs to move from artificial outcomes like reaction times on computer tasks to actual behaviors.
Implicit Cognition Research Focusses on Automatic (Not Unconscious) Processes
Gawronski & Bodenhausen (2006), WOS/11/22 1,537
“If eras of psychological research can be characterized in terms of general ideas, a major theme of the current era is probably the notion of automaticity” (p. 692)
This perspective is also dominant in contemporary research on attitudes, in which deliberate, “explicit” attitudes are often contrasted with automatic, “implicit” attitudes (Greenwald & Banaji, 1995; Petty, Fazio, & Brin˜ol, in press; Wilson, Lindsey, &
Schooler, 2000; Wittenbrink & Schwarz, in press).
“We assume that people generally do have some degree of conscious access to their automatic affective reactions and that they tend to rely on these affective reactions in making evaluative judgments (Gawronski, Hofmann, & Wilbur, in press; Schimmack & Crites, 2005) (p. 696).
Conrey, Sherman, Gawronski, Hugenberg, & Groom (2005) , WOS/11/22
“The distinction between automatic and controlled processes now occupies a central role in many areas of social psychology and is reflected in contemporary dual-process theories of prejudice and stereotyping (e.g., Devine, 1989)” (p. 469)
“Specifically, we argued that performance on implicit measures is influenced by at least four different processes: the automatic activation of an association (association activation), the ability to determine a correct response (discriminability), the success at overcoming automatically activated associations (overcoming bias), and the influence of response biases
that may influence responses in the absence of other available guides to response (guessing)” (p. 482)
Gawronski & DeHouwer (2014), WOS 11/22 240
” other researchers assume that the two kinds of 11lL’asurcs tap into distinct memory representations, such that explicit measures tap into conscious representations whereas implicit measures tap into unconscious representations (e.g., Greenwald &
Banaji, 1995). Although the conceptualizations arc relatively common in the literature on implicit measures, we believe that it is concecptually more appropriate to classify different measures in terms of whether the tobe-measured psychological attribute influences participants’ responses on the task in an automatic fashion (De Houwer, Teige-Mocigemba, Spruyt, & Moors, 2009).” (p. 283)
Hofmann, Gawronski, Le, & Schmitt, PSPB, 2005, WoS/11/22
“These [implicit] measures—most of them based on reaction times in response compatibility tasks (cf. De Houwer, 2003)—are intended to assess relatively automatic mental associations that are difficult to gauge with explicit self-report measures”. (p. 1369)
Gawronski, Hofmann, & Wilbur (2006), WoS/11/22 200
“A common explanation for these findings is that the spontaneous behavior assessed in these
studies is difficult to control, and thus more likely to be influenced by automatic evaluations, such as they are reflected in indirect attitude measures” (p. 492)
“there is no empirical evidence that people lack conscious awareness of indirectly assessed attitudes per se” (p. 496)
Gawronski, LeBel, & Peters, PoPS (2007) WOS/11/22 187
“The central assumption in this model is that indirect measures provide a proxy for the activation of associations in memory” (p. 187)
Gawronski & LeBel, JESP (2008) WOS/11/22
“We argue that implicit measures provide a proxy for automatic associations in memory,
which may or may not influence verbal judgments reflected in self-report measures” (p. 1356)
Deutsch, Gawronski, & Strack, JPSP (2006), WOS/11/22 122
“Phenomena such as stereotype and attitude activation can be readily reconstructed as instance-based automaticity. For example, perceiving a person of a stereotyped group or an
attitude object may be sufficient to activate well-practiced stereotypic or evaluative associations in memory” (p. 386)
Implicit measures are important even if they do not assess unconscious processes.
Hofmann, Gawronski, Le, & Schmitt, PSPB, 2005, WoS/11/22
” Arguably one of the most important contributions in social cognition research within the last decade was the development of implicit measures of attitudes, stereotypes, self-concept, and self-esteem (e.g., Fazio, Jackson, Dunton, & Williams, 1995; Greenwald, McGhee, & Schwartz, 1998; Nosek & Banaji, 2001; Wittenbrink, Judd, & Park, 1997).” (p. 1369)
Gawronski & DeHouwer (2014), WOS 11/22 240
“For the decade to come, we believe that the field would benefit from a stronger focus on underlying mechanisms with regard to the measures themselves as well as their capability to predict behavior (see also Nosek, Hawkins, & Frazier, 2011).” (p. 303)