Beware of Implicit Bias: Part 2

2 smiling doodles talk to each other in an office setting.

Today, we’re going to finish our conversation about implicit (or unconscious) bias. As you may recall, we started talking about this topic last month, and it was clear right away that it was going to be a 2-parter. So, if you missed it or need a refresher, check out the first installment of this set before you read on. In that post, we discussed what implicit bias is, why it happens, and why it’s important.

We also explained how actively challenging stereotypes can help us work against implicit bias. Indeed, research suggests that when we intentionally challenge stereotypes, we can retrain our brains so that our automatic responses aren’t shaped by our implicit biases. For example, the piece we shared in part 1 from the American Academy of Family Physicians discusses the specific strategy of “counter-stereotypic imaging” — essentially, once you’ve identified a bias, you actively work against it by bringing positive, non-stereotypical images to the surface of your brain in order to replace your implicit responses. According to the piece, “as positive exemplars become more salient in your mind, they become cognitively accessible and challenge your stereotypic biases.” That’s the retraining part.

Here are a few more tips to help you check implicit bias at the door:

  • Get comfortable thinking critically about your own perspectives and sitting with tough stuff. Challenging implicit bias isn’t easy — but it’s one of the most important things we can do as health communicators and, frankly, as people. Over the last few years, there’s been a long-overdue reckoning with the damaging health effects of institutional racism and the fact that traditional public health approaches have reinforced harmful inequities. That’s why our equity-centered health comm framework includes nuggets like this: “Humility in health communication is the practice of self-reflection on how our own background and biases impact every aspect of the communication process. And this includes an examination of power dynamics and imbalances in our work.” Try to make friends with the discomfort so that challenging implicit bias becomes second nature.
  • Let your audience share their experiences and preferences. That means getting real feedback from real audience members to ensure you understand their needs and leverage the right strategies to meet them. It does not mean creating a narrative for them based on our understanding of their experiences.
  • Build in time for reflection — on your own and with your colleagues. Put simply, uncovering and challenging our own implicit biases takes, well, time! That said, the public health field isn’t known for its abundance of available resources, so we recognize that this might not always be realistic. But when you can, take time as you develop your health comm materials or design your intervention to reflect on your own and with others on your project team. Talk to each other about what’s coming up for each of you — good chance you’ll learn something (and more likely, lots of things).
  • Think carefully about intersectionality within audience segments. Effectively reaching our priority audiences often means tailoring our materials to very specific subgroups, or audience segments. But what we often overlook is the intersectionality that exists within these segments — we need to think both across and within audience segments. So if you’re working on materials tailored to Black women, are you also thinking about Black lesbians? Biracial women who identify as Black? Essentially, make sure the conversation you’re having with yourself and your colleagues is the whole conversation.
  • Read materials multiple times with different lenses. Disclaimer: There’s nothing evidence-based about this, but we find that it can make a difference. If you’re working on an original material, “assign” yourself different lenses for multiple reviews. For example, if you’re writing about diabetes among Hispanic people, read the whole material through once while thinking only about how the content might land with your audience — not about whether your plain language explanation of diabetes is getting the job done. Isolating specific things you want to focus on helps your brain do just that: focus on them. (This is also a good strategy for proofreading. But we digress.)

Before we close this one out, we want to acknowledge that this is hard. Trying to be conscious of something that literally (sometimes) has unconscious in its name is hard! But if we’re going to approach this work with empathy — and help make sure our audiences feel seen, respected, and valued — it’s a must.

The bottom line: Challenging our own implicit biases is tricky. It’s also a must for health communicators.

Tweet about it: In part 2 of a mini-series on #ImplicitBias for health communicators, the @CommunicateHlth crew shares tips to help challenge those biases in #HealthComm. Take a look:


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