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As researchers, we strive for impartiality when talking to participants, allowing them to speak openly without judgement or fear of recourse. This helps us reveal patterns of behavior or perceptions held by individuals from diverse walks of life.

However, pure impartiality requires constant vigilance and personal awareness because our brains are wired to make snap judgements and associations, which often lead to unconscious or implicit biases.[1] Although this concept is well studied in the context of organizational behavior and hiring processes, it is less so in the context of researchers turning the lens on themselves.

Impact of Implicit Bias

Compared to explicitly held or expressed attitudes, implicit biases can be particularly harmful to impartiality in research because it is difficult to “correct” problematic attitudes or opinions that we are not even aware that we hold. In sum, implicit bias can impact everything from the research questions we ask to the way we collect and interpret our data in potentially important, problematic ways. For example, if a researcher who is conducting a focus group unconsciously identifies with one participant over the others based on implicit biases, the researcher may be more inclined to highlight that one participant’s responses in follow-up probes. This would skew the collected data and the overall research findings.

How can we work to mitigate the impact of implicit bias on our research studies?

Steps to Mitigate the Impact of Implicit Bias

I recently attended the 2020 Qualitative Research Consultants Association (QRCA) Annual Conference, at which researchers, vendors, and consultants from all backgrounds gathered to share their expertise and grow the qualitative research field. During the conference, Cynthia Harris of 8:28 Consulting presented the role of implicit bias in market research. In her talk, Ms. Harris provided resources to discover our biases and encouraged us to work at maintaining self-awareness in our work. The two key takeaways from her presentation that can help mitigate the impact of implicit bias in research were:

  1. Discover: The first step to managing implicit bias is identifying it. Allow yourself to be vulnerable enough to uncover your own biases. Only then can you work effectively to mitigate their impact on your studies and life. Below are a few helpful resources and implicit association tests (IAT) for exploring implicit bias.
  • Project Implicit: Project Implicit is a nonprofit organization dedicated to educating the public on hidden bias. The platform was developed in collaboration with researchers around the world and can be used to identify the implicit associations you hold on a wide range of topics.
  • Bias Busting @ Work: This interactive, scenario-based course was created by Google to help employees identify bias in the workplace and intervene.
  • Look Different Bias Cleanse: MTV launched a campaign in 2014 to open conversations with youth about hidden bias. This bias cleanse provides daily tools to help change unconscious associations. Currently, their tools focus on gender, race, and sexual orientation.
  • Starbucks Training: On May 29, 2018, Starbucks closed 8,000 stores to conduct a learning session on racial bias with their employees in response to an incidence of racial discrimination in one of their Philadelphia stores.
  1. Maintain Awareness: Once you have identified where your biases lie, it is important to actively maintain that awareness and continually work to manage and shift your unconscious associations. Use IATs on an ongoing basis to train yourself to identify bias. Apply this awareness in your research by evaluating the language you use both in how you ask questions during data collection and in how you report your findings. For example, when writing a report, keep an eye out for language or visualizations that may favor one population over others (e.g., using more quotes from male participants than other gender groups). Check out this blog post for more information on language and labels in research. Seek feedback from coworkers or peers to provide an outside perspective, and practice mindfulness to further your conscious connection with yourself and your attitudes and perceptions—both desirable and undesirable.

At Fors Marsh Group, we keep this dialogue alive across the company through the operation of our Diversity and Inclusion committee (check out this blog post for more information). This employee-run group engages with the rest of our staff on a regular basis through emails and local events, which celebrate diversity and challenge implicit bias both in the workplace and in our research. Since it was established, the Diversity and Inclusion committee has provided us with a forum to discuss best practices for writing more inclusive surveys, participant screeners, and discussion guides as well as best practices for ethical data reporting.

Managing implicit bias is a journey, and self-awareness is the destination. Our hope is that these tools help you along the way. Remember that having implicit bias does not make you a bad person, it just means you are a person. It is what you do with that knowledge that matters.

Contact us to gain additional insight and resources on mitigating implicit bias. 

[1] http://kirwaninstitute.osu.edu/research/understanding-implicit-bias/

About the author

Sam Evans

Sam Evans

Sam Evans is a senior qualitative researcher and experienced moderator. He has significant experience designing and executing studies, authoring moderator guides, and moderating both in-person and remote focus groups and in-depth interviews. At FMG, Sam serves as an internal subject matter expert focused on developing and implementing best practices in qualitative methods across the organization.

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