Intuition and Implicit Bias


ftentimes, prevention practitioners conclude bystander intervention lessons by telling participants that if all else fails, they should trust their guts. We believe that folks ignore the internal alarm bell to their own peril. But as bystanders and prevention practitioners, it’s important to distinguish between intuition and implicit bias. Sometimes what sounds the alarm is not that we recognized latent warning signs. Sometimes it’s our own prejudices disguised as cause for alarm.

Merriam-Webster defines intuition as, “the power or faculty of attaining direct knowledge or cognition with evident rational thought and inference.” The Kirwan Institute at The Ohio State University defines implicit bias as “the attitudes or stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions, and decisions in an unconscious manner.” Internally, it can be hard to distinguish between those two things. Intuition is when we notice a bunch of things and make a judgment without consciouslynoticing we are making the judgment. Implicit bias is when we notice a thing and then we allow our preconceived notions or stereotypes to fill in the blanks.

You might have seen an example of implicit bias in your neighborhood Facebook group or message board.  Some neighbors raise the alarm when someone passes their window who seems out of place. In many instances, the only cause for suspicion is that the person is black or brown. A white person loitering at the street corner and looking around is waiting for their ride. A black person doing the same is waiting to be alone so they can steal a package off a porch unobserved. Implicit bias elevates things people would generally ignore to areasonable cause for suspicion. And it might surprise you to know (although probably not) that these are sometimes the very same neighbors who have a Hate Has No Home Hereyard sign.

So, why do people with generally egalitarian, outward facing beliefs do racist things? And why don’t they (we) perceive those things as racist? Our implicit biases, those stereotypes that affect our perception of a situation, can lead to a form of racism known as implicit or aversive racism. This is different from the overt racism that so many of us have worked to eliminate. Implicit racism is the way that individual members of a systemically-empowered racial or ethnic group change their behavior in one-on-one interactions with people of historically marginalized racial or ethnic groups.

As we grow, we categorize difference and apply value to it. Our valuations are influenced by a lot of outside sources of information, and in some communities some of those sources teach us to categorize difference as scary. We should all reconsider how reliable our own gut is. And, we should reconsider advising participants to trust their guts, knowing the harmful impact it might have on others. When they are alarmed, what if we encouraged participants to, instead of posting alerts in a neighborhood group or calling the police, identify what behaviors they are actually observing? And what if, when they check-in, they practice taking a little time to think about what they found to be so alarming in the first place?


Additional Resources

 Unitarian Universalist Association (2018). Alternatives to calling the police.

Project Implicit (2011). Select a Test.Harvard University.


Works Cited

Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity (2015). Understanding implicit bias. The Ohio State University Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity.

Merriam-Webster. (n.d.) Intuition. In dictionary.Retrieved April 9, 2020 from

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