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Behavioral Science

Politicians & Soda: A Public Service Announcement about Implicit Bias

Posted On  October 11, 2016

Social psychologists around the world have been giddy. Mentions of the word “implicit” in the national conversation have soared in recent days, getting coverage in political discourse and across the media.

Finally, we thought, our work is getting the attention it deserves as a key area of study steps onto the mainstage.

But as we’ve watched and listened more intently, it has become apparent that social psychologists, including myself, have work to do; the meaning of implicit is not very clear. Terms like implicit, nonconscious, subconscious, and emotional often get used interchangeably and incorrectly. Even in the space of marketing and market research, where there is an increasing recognition that much of consumer behavior is not consciously deliberate, there is great confusion about what all these terms mean. Here follows a brief public service announcement on the meaning of implicit.

Stereotypes, attitudes, or biases are implicit in that they are nonconscious associations resulting from past experiences. Our behavior is affected by these nonconscious associations, despite the fact that we don’t recall these experiences or realize that they are influencing us. These associations develop based on the river of information we are constantly exposed to: the media (news, television shows, movies), seeing other people’s reactions when they interact with members of a particular group, and seeing the roles these people occupy in society. And because much of this information is shared within a culture (we’re all swimming in the same river, as it were), implicit biases and preferences are generally widespread within a culture.

Take politicians, for example. Dishonest, selfish, self-promoting; all bluster and no substance. Do some or all of those ideas come to mind when you think of politicians?  It’s fair to say that many of us, implicitly, have a negative attitude toward politicians (and that was true even before the current US presidential election cycle). Without our realizing it, this bias has been years in the making and influences our reaction to, and what we expect from, our politicians. Without a doubt, the nonconscious associations I have with politicians contributes to the look on my face when I see my congressman walking in my neighborhood.

Given the context in which implicit biases have been discussed recently, we tend to (implicitly perhaps) think of them as being about groups of people and negative. But implicit biases apply to a whole host of stimuli beyond social groups. And they don’t have to be negative; they can be positive, too.

I haven’t taken a test to verify it, but it’s very likely that I am positively biased toward Coca-Cola at an implicit level. I grew up seeing Coca-Cola ads in which everyone looked happy and product placements in shows in which drinking Coca-Cola was a special treat. All of these past experiences, many of which I cannot consciously recall, are responsible for my preference for Coca-Cola. So when I’m feeling celebratory and want a treat, I reach for a Diet Coke because I easily associate Coca-Cola with good things. But if you were to ask me why I reached for it, I’d probably tell you, “Because it’s so refreshing.” I wouldn’t recognize the less conscious influences at work.

So what does all of this mean? Whether you’re a citizen voting for a candidate or a consumer voting for brands with your dollars, implicit biases affect our behavior. Our self-reported explanations of our own behavior are usually incomplete, given that we are unlikely to be aware of and fully account for implicit influences. We will have a much better understanding of our own behavior and that of others if we take both implicit and explicit influences into consideration.

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1 Comment

  1. Very nice piece illustrating the operation of implicit bias. I am still not sure how Dr. Eccleston feels about the relationship between cognitive bias and emotion. I would love to hear more from her on this topic — especially since too many of us in market research seem to confuse implicit associations (which are cognitive phenomena) with emotions.


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