The insidiousness of unconscious bias in schools


Seth Gershenson


Thomas Dee

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Humans frequently make automatic decisions at a subconscious level. The human brain’s capacity for reflexive decisionmaking is what Nobel Laureate Daniel Khaneman calls “System 1” (as opposed to the more analytical, thoughtful, deliberate decision making of “System 2”) in the best-selling “Thinking, Fast and Slow.” This evolutionary adaptation was, and is, sometimes necessary for survival. However, these automatic responses occur via the rapid processing of new information through existing patterns of thought. Thus, because our automatic responses are shaped by our lived experiences and the broader social contexts in which we live and work, a pervasive byproduct of reflexive decisionmaking is unconscious bias (UB), which is also referred to as implicit bias or implicit social cognition.

Specifically, UB is the phenomenon in which stereotypes, positive or negative, influence decisions and behaviors without the individual consciously acting on the stereotype or being aware that he or she is doing so. Moreover, UB can occur even when individuals know or believe the stereotype to be false.

The insidiousness of UB is that it can create self-fulfilling prophecies that create and perpetuate inequities between in- and out-groups, even when the initial stereotype was incorrect (and there was no pre-existing difference between in- and out-group members). This post outlines some promising interventions we identify in a recent report, commissioned by Google’s Computer Science Education Research Division, that can short-circuit the recursive processes and self-fulfilling prophecies triggered by UB.

In this report, we argue that the consequences of UB may be particularly salient in the hierarchical environments of schools. Specifically, UB likely perpetuates socio-economic, gender, and racial gaps in educational outcomes such as academic performance, engagement with school, course and major choice, and persistence in higher education, particularly among historically disadvantaged and underrepresented groups such as low-income and racial-minority students. These gaps in educational outcomes then manifest in corresponding workplace disparities in pay, promotions, and employment.

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APA Citation

Gershenson, S., & Dee, T.S. (2017). The insidiousness of unconscious bias in schools. .

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