Examining our hidden bias

Try these mental exercises to uncover how your brain has internalized biases

July 1, 2021 4:00 am

Spectators wave pride flags during the 2016 San Francisco Pride Parade on June 26, 2016, in San Francisco, California. Hundreds of thousands of people came out to watch the annual San Francisco Pride parade, one of the largest in the world. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Pride Month and Juneteenth may have passed, but the time to address systemic biases of all kinds certainly hasn’t.

To start, a riddle:

A father and his son are in a car crash. The father dies. The son is brought to the emergency department for life saving surgery. Upon entering the room, the surgeon shouts, “I can’t operate on this boy, he’s my son!”

How is this possible?

Did you solve it?

If not, you are not alone.


In some psychology studies, a mere 15% of participants were able to answer that the surgeon in question is the boy’s mother. Even self-described feminists come up with this answer only about 22% of the time, lending credence to reports that show an estimated 86% of women hold bias against their own gender. A few people might also suggest the surgeon is a gay man, but the vast majority of research participants miss both answers.

This is an example of implicit bias.

In this example, you aren’t outwardly thinking or saying women or gay people can’t be surgeons — that would be explicit bias. Yet your brain has internalized the available information from our culture and struggled to produce the possibility of a woman or a gay person as the answer. Given that surgeons are predominantly white, straight men, it’s not exactly surprising that our inherent computations, so to speak, fail to find examples that produce a reflective and inclusive result.

What if you are part of the small handful that solved the puzzle? Are you free of implicit bias?

Probably not.

Try asking yourself the following questions: Were you able to come up with multiple answers to the riddle above, or only one? How long did it take you to find the answers? When you envision the characters in the riddle, what races are they? What ages? If you didn’t originally see a mix of genders, races and ages, can you try to change the image? How do these questions and images make you feel?

If you’re being honest with yourself, it’s very likely that you might not like at least a part of what your subconscious mind produces at first, and you might even struggle to reproduce a new image. These are your implicit biases derived from our cultural exposures and the first step is awareness. It may be difficult to acknowledge, but it’s also an opportunity for growth.

There are many ways to gain more awareness into your biases, and one great tool can be to take the Implicit Association Tests run by Project Implicit. Founded in the late 1990s by three scientists, these tests examine a wide range of possible biases such as toward gender, race, disabilities and more. They take some time to complete, but the effort is well invested — it’s only after we appreciate the depth of our collective and individual implicit biases that we can work to overcome them.

For practice, here’s another mental exercise:

Imagine you are invited to a formal business dinner. You go to the formal wear section of a department store. The sales staff assists you in selecting the perfect outfit. You then dash off to your dinner in a taxi cab and greet six investors whom you pitch to join your company.

What gender did you picture as the sales staff at the department store? What race were they? How old? How about the taxi cab driver? The six investors?

Holidays come and go, but the values they are meant to recognize should last year-round. If you spent the last several weeks celebrating outwardly, now is a great time to focus inward.


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Trish Zornio
Trish Zornio

Trish Zornio is a scientist, lecturer and writer who has worked at some of the nation's top universities and hospitals. She’s an avid rock climber and was a 2020 candidate for the U.S. Senate in Colorado.