Chapter 3: Acknowledge Your Biases


In previous chapters, we discussed the ways privilege and oppression work, and the importance of using an intersectional lens to challenge inequity and oppression in our society. In this chapter, we will reflect on the ways our individual and interpersonal attitudes and behaviours towards others are largely influenced by our context, lived experiences and cultural/social norms. For instance, sometimes the language we use or the jokes we make could be perceived as stereotypical or inappropriate by others. These behaviours can often be unintentional or derived from our unconscious mind. These demonstrations of unconscious bias, also known as implicit bias, are complicated psychological and physiological products derived from our culture, narratives, ideas, development, beliefs, education, and/or social interactions. In the following two-part chapters, we will identify different forms of biases that manifest in our society and how to address them. In the first part, we will introduce some current work by social scientists to explore the story behind our consciousness. How do we develop biases? What are the different forms of biases and how can we measure them?


Learning Objectives

By the end of this chapter, you will be able to:

  1. Explain the development of biases;
  2. Define conscious and unconscious biases; and
  3. Measure your own unconscious bias using an Implicit Association Test (IAT).



We all develop and demonstrate biases in any moment of our daily life interactions. As young as 3 months old, we can recognize and show preference to specific racial groups, and respond more positively towards those ‘who look like us’ (Bar-Haim et al., 2006). As our cognition develops, we start to associate traits and status markers with racially and culturally diverse groups, even before starting elementary school (Newheiser et al., 2014; Olson et al., 2012), at which time some of us first come to experience negative consequences of not sharing certain familiar facial features (Marcelo & Yates, 2019). This cognitive capability is rooted in our central nervous system that is responsible for stress response, which evolved as a survival mechanism to either fight a dangerous situation or flee to safety. In modern society, this same “Fight or Flight” instinct can lead us to elevate our heart rate, blood pressure, as well as having sweaty palms, and rapid breathing when we are involved in an unfamiliar and stressful situation, such as talking to strangers or responding to something or someone outside the normal stereotypes. Consequently, our behaviour under these circumstances is more likely to be driven by intuitive habits and gut feelings, rather than a deliberated thought process (Yu, 2016).

Why is this important?

Embedding equity, diversity, and inclusion in our daily practices challenges us to confront social stereotypes by educating ourselves and reflecting on how we perceive our relationships with others. This means that we need to become aware of our instincts and our unconsciousness, and act deliberatively to make meaningful contributions towards building equitable and inclusive communities for everyone. In the following sections, we will introduce different types of biases and how to recognize them in our daily life.

Bias and Stereotypes

Bias: n, from French biais, describes “a tendency, inclination, or prejudice toward or against something or someone” (Merriam-Webster). Biases are often based on stereotypes, rather than actual knowledge of an individual or circumstance. That can result in prejudgments that lead to discriminatory practices or treating some people unfairly” (Psychology Today). Bias can be held by an individual, a group, or an institution based on any aspect of individual identities, including but not limited to gender, sexual orientation, age, race, education, religion, disability status, and cultural background. For instance, “Trans people and other gender non-conforming individuals are often judged by their physical appearance for not fitting and conforming to stereotypical norms about what it means to be a “man” or “woman.” They experience stigmatization, prejudice, bias, and fear on a daily basis. While some may see trans people as inferior, others may lack awareness and understanding about what it means to be trans.” The term “bias” can refer to both the unfair act and the prejudiced inclination or preference one might display.

It is important to note that it is natural to engage in biases and no one is immune to having them. This is how our brain operates – it recognizes patterns and associations in the world. Social scientists have defined distinct types of cognitive biases, such as confirmation bias, attribution bias, availability bias, and affinity bias (Nalty, 2016), as well as various contextual biases that commonly occur in academia, the education system, media, and law enforcement. Bias can manifest as both negative and positive attitudes towards a person or a member of a particular group leading to differential treatment and unfair outcomes.

Bias is largely influenced by our environment and is rooted in the perception of stereotypes.

Stereotype: n, refers to over-generalized beliefs of something, a situation, or any individual member of a particular social group (Merriam-Webster). Stereotypes are often influenced by societal expectations and individual lived experiences. Stereotyping can shape our behaviours and can often lead to negative or normative perceptions and biases.

One of the most expressed stereotypes is centered around individual gender identity, known as gender stereotypes. Gender stereotypes, or gender schema, are cognitive cultural and social beliefs about personal traits, attitudes, behaviour, preference, and/or physical appearance of men and women (Eckes & Trautner, 2000). These gender stereotypes are rooted in the traditional gendered division of labour where men are stereotypically viewed as confident, self-reliant, and dominant, while women are stereotyped as caregivers (Biernat & Malin, 2008).

Stereotypes can be explicit, meaning conscious or self-aware. For example, you could actively look to your friends of Asian descent for math support because you perceive Asians as being good at math. Stereotypes can also be implicit and operate on an unconscious level, leading to implicit or unconscious biases. For example, you could be unconsciously prioritizing medical support from a male medical professional because you have a gender stereotype towards doctors.

Conscious (Explicit) Bias vs. Unconscious (Implicit) Bias

The concepts of conscious and unconscious biases are very intuitive:

Conscious bias: n, or explicit biases, are self-aware attitudes or assumptions we hold against other people, for example, conscious biases can be self-aware intentions and predeterminations of people based on explicit prejudice or stereotypes of that group (Ruhl, 2020). Conscious bias is always overtly expressed and occurs as discriminatory behavior towards certain groups.

Unconscious bias: n, or implicit bias, describes unconscious attitudes or beliefs we hold about diverse groups of people (Catalyst, 2014). Unconscious biases operate on the subconscious level and are difficult to detect without a proper toolkit. Everyone holds unconscious and implicit associations with different groups of people through our interactions with the world via social media, our friends and family, education, cultural and social context, religion, news, and television.

Project Implicit – The Implicit Association Test (IAT)

Video: Implicit Bias Defined

This short video (2:44) from the National Education Association explains unconscious bias: what is the underlying neurological pathway and how to address it? Implicit Bias Defined

As Robbie discussed in the video, the first step we can take to reduce our unconscious biases is to recognize them. In this following exercise, you will be directed to an external website called Project Implicit – The Implicit Association Test (IAT), which measures the implicit attitudes and beliefs that you might hold against different groups of people, by scoring the strength of association between different identity markers (e.g., age, sexuality, skin tone) and evaluation (e.g., good, bad) (Greenwald et al., 1998). There are five parts to the test, in which you will be asked to quickly sort concepts and evaluation into categories by pressing different “e” and “I” keys on your keyboards. You will repeat this test when the concept gets combined with the evaluation to test how long it takes you to click whenever the concept and evaluation are placed differently, such as Fat People/Good vs. Fat People/Bad. You will also have a chance to choose your individual demographic data. Just keep in mind that you always have the option to “Decline to Answer” on the lower bottom corner in the initial questionnaire. Once you entered the IAT test, you will need to complete all five parts to receive a final score. Click Take a Test to access the test.

Summary and Self-Reflection

Tip #3

Identify how unconscious bias contributes to systems of oppression.

In this chapter, Acknowledge Your Biases, we discussed different forms of biases and how it develops and manifests in our society. Conscious bias and unconscious bias can be thought as a free-floating iceberg where conscious bias occupies the 10% above surface and unconscious bias operates the majority underneath waters of our consciousness.


Diagram of an iceberg to represent conscious bias above the waterline and unconscious bias below. See image transcript at end of Chapter 3.
Figure 3.1 The Bias Iceberg [See image transcript at end of chapter.]

Regardless of our identities and lived experiences, we all have our own icebergs of biases because of our early childhood development and our interactions with the world but we can work to address it. Find out how you can outsmart your own consciousness in the next chapter, Address Your Biases.

Chapter 3 References

Bar-Haim, Y., Ziv, T., Lamy, D., & Hodes, R. M. (2006). Nature and Nurture in Own-Race Face Processing. Psychological Science, 17(2), 159–163.

Bias. (n.d.). In Merriam-Webster.

Biernat, M., & Malin, M. H. (2008). Political Ideology and Labor Arbitrators’ Decision Making in Work–Family Conflict Cases. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 34(7), 888–899.

Catalyst. What is Unconscious Bias? New York: Catalyst, December 11, 2014.

Eckes, T., & Trautner, H. M. (Eds.). (2000). The developmental social psychology of gender. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Greenwald, A. G., McGhee, D. E., & Schwartz, J. L. K. (1998). Measuring individual differences in implicit cognition: The implicit association test. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74(6), 1464–1480.

Marcelo, A. K., & Yates, T. M. (2019). Young children’s ethnic–racial identity moderates the impact of early discrimination experiences on child behavior problems. Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology, 25(2), 253–265.

Merriam-Webster. (n.d.). Bias. In dictionary. Retrieved November 29, 2021, from

Merriam-Webster. (n.d.). Stereotype. In dictionary. Retrieved November 29, 2021, from

Nalty, K. (2016). Strategies for confronting unconscious bias. The Colorado Lawyer, 45(5), 45-52.

Newheiser, A.-K., Dunham, Y., Merrill, A., Hoosain, L., & Olson, K. R. (2014). Preference for high status predicts implicit outgroup bias among children from low-status groups. Developmental Psychology, 50(4), 1081–1090.

Olson, K. R., Shutts, K., Kinzler, K. D., & Weisman, K. G. (2012). Children Associate Racial Groups With Wealth: Evidence From South Africa: Children Associate Racial Groups With Wealth. Child Development, 83(6), 1884–1899.

Psychology Today. (n.d.). Bias. Retrieved October 13, 2021, from

Ruhl, C. (2020). Implicit or Unconscious Bias.

Yu, R. (2016). Stress potentiates decision biases: A stress induced deliberation-to-intuition (SIDI) model. Neurobiology of Stress, 3, 83–95.


Image Credits

Chapter 3 Banner: Open Learning and Educational Support, University of Guelph/graphic

Chapter 3 Divider: Open Learning and Educational Support, University of Guelph/graphic

Figure 3.1 The Bias Iceberg: Open Learning and Educational Support, University of Guelph/graphic


Image Transcript

Figure 3.1 The Bias Iceberg

An image of an iceberg floating in water. The waterline represents the Line of Consciousness.

The portion of the iceberg above the waterline represents Conscious Bias: Self-aware intentions and predeterminations of people based on explicit prejudice or stereotypes.

The portion of the iceberg below the waterline represents Unconscious Bias: Unconscious attitudes or beliefs we hold about different groups of people, as a response of our neurological shortcuts.


Building Community: Introduction to Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Copyright © 2022 by University of Guelph is licensed under a Ontario Commons License, except where otherwise noted.

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