The study of “implicit biases” is becoming more and more common in research seeking to understand the nature of attitudes toward minority groups and governmental policies that affect them. My own dissertation research employed a study of “implicit nativist biases” – subconscious preferences for one version of American culture over another.
The American Psychological Association recently published a press release containing an interview with Dr. John Dovidio at Yale University. He explains this about implicit attitudes:
Implicit biases are beliefs (stereotypes) and feelings (prejudice) that are activated without intent, control, and often conscious awareness. These are habits of mind that develop through cultural as well as personal associations. Whereas most people no longer consciously endorse stereotypes and prejudice, the majority of people still harbor implicit biases.
Further, he argues that the presence of implicit racial attitudes toward Hispanic immigrants among most Americans will make it very difficult, if not impossible, for Arizona police officers to avoid racial profiling when carrying out the recently-passed Arizona immigration law:
APA. Will this new law lead to racial profiling within the state?
Dovidio. Stereotyping, prejudice, and biases in how people perceive and react to members of other groups typically occur automatically and with limited conscious control. These automatic processes are even more influential when people feel threatened or are under time pressure – common experiences for police officers – and thus will lead to systematic and racially/ethnically biased profiling.
APA. The Arizona governor has said that police in the state will be trained to properly apply the law. Will police officers in the state be able to overcome their implicit or unconscious bias?
Dovidio. Training of the type that is being proposed cannot consistently mitigate the effects of these implicit, and often unconscious, biases. Training may make people more aware of the potential for biased implementation of the law and help them understand better what they should be doing, but research has shown that training by itself cannot eliminate the systematic forces of implicit bias that operate unintentionally, often without awareness and the ability to control it. Training should help limit blatant abuses, but implicit biases will still play an important role in how the new police powers actually play out on the street.
The entire interview is available here: http://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2010/05/immigration-law.aspx
More about implicit attitudes, as well as online implicit attitude tests that you can take, are available here: https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/demo/