September 18, 2014, by Tom Stafford

The minimal cognitive commitment model of implicit bias

Previously, we have discussed (one, two) the multiple meanings of implicit in implicit biases. Implicit is often intepreted as implying ‘unconscious’ in some strong sense (in the popular press), or as implying a lack of awareness and control (in the scholarly literature). Even in the scholarly literature it is rarely systemmatically defined exacly what kind of awareness we are discussing.

Because of this, when I read the word ‘implicit’, I don’t intepret it as meaning ‘unconscious’. Instead I think of it as merely meaning ‘revealed by measuring behaviour rather than declaration’. Let’s call this the minimal cognitive commitment model.

Here’s the example I’ve been using to train my intuitions when thinking about implicit biases. Suppose you ask me in public “what’s your favourite piece of music?”. I will answer with something based partly based on my preferences/beliefs, but also, to some degree influenced, by self-presentational worries, what I think you want to hear, what I think the right answer is and so on. Probably I answer with something revealling my taste and sophistication, choosing something avant garde, or obscure. Now, supposed you try to find out the answer to this question yourself by looking at my computer and sorting the tracks in my my music software by how often they’ve been played. Surprise! What comes out top is not something classical-yet-contempory by Philip Glass, nor the unrealeased b-sides from early 90s New York jazz-hipsters, but instead, probably, something more accessible. Maybe it is Jolene by Dolly Parton. So it turns out I have an implicit preference for for Jolene.

Does this mean I didn’t know about my love for Jolene? That I couldn’t have reported, or wouldn’t have reported it, if you’d have asked me in the right way? Does it even mean that I wasn’t telling the honest truth when I answered your question earlier? No, none of these. I might know that I loved Jolene, that I listening to the track more than any other piece of music. I may also have considered it as answer before interpreting the question in a way that meant it wasn’t the correct answer (so, for example, maybe ‘favourite piece of music’ means ‘piece which has been most influential on me’ or ‘piece I believe I’ll still enjoy in ten years’ time’).

The example is silly, but the moral is not: implicit measures in psychology do not – on their own – imply any strong commitments with regard to awareness.

Posted in Bias