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Since the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, protestors have marched in at least 140 cities across the U.S., speaking out against systemic racism and police brutality noted The New York Times on June 2.

The officers involved were immediately fired, and subsequent charges are being brought. Will this change the outcome of future events related to police brutality? Probably not.

That’s because the action taken against the officers addressed the symptom, not the cause, of the larger problem: implicit bias.

What is Implicit Bias?

Shane Bauer is an investigative journalist for The Atlantic who went undercover to research the American prison system. He took a job as a prison guard at a maximum-security prison. In his book, American Prison: A Reporter’s Undercover Journey into the Business of Punishment, he documents his slow, mental breakdown and definition of what is “right” and what is “good,” in part for self-preservation.

Luckily, Bauer was self-aware enough to realize what was happening and was able to remove himself from the situation. Most of us don’t have that luxury or the awareness required to halt the cultural conditioning before it is complete.

This is how implicit bias works. It happens over years and centuries, put in place by those in power to create fear and self-perpetuating oppression.

How Bias Works

The brain receives 11 million bits of information per second, but it can only consciously process 50 bits of information. But the brain is smart. It divides and conquers. It puts all that extra information into categories for quick retrieval during decision-making.

Alas, the mind is a faulty processer, brain researchers have learned. The categories it assigns information to so that you can handle simple tasks such as making coffee or checking email don’t work well when it comes to human interactions and our judgments of others.

In fact, the brain stitches together a story based on incomplete and often inaccurate information that includes your personal experiences, your assumptions, and what you perceive as “normal.”

It then produces a false narrative, and unconscious bias, often called a “gut feeling,” note authors Mahzarin R. Banaji and Anthony G. Greenwald in Blind Spot: The Hidden Biases of Good People.

Is It a Prejudice or a Bias?

People often confuse prejudices with bias. In fact, prejudice and bias are two different creatures. Prejudices are conscious and often articulated, such as your stand on gender fluidity or the best presidential nominee.

Biases are “implicit,” that is, you’re not consciously aware of them. They also may be in direct opposition to what you say you believe.

Common biases are around age, race, religion, gender, class, sexual orientation, body size, and more. But there are a lot of smaller biases such as the tendency to hire others just like you, called the “like me” or “similar-to-me” bias as one Forbes author wrote.

The Brain’s Schema

Your brain is divided into two parts. The conscious, rational part of your brain is based on facts and logical conclusions. It holds the 50 bits of information that allow you to draw logical conclusions. For instance, “I should go for a walk instead of watching TV, based on the health data I have.”

But the majority of our decision-making is based on emotion and impulses, and that’s where we get in trouble. That’s also where we hold the 11 million bits of information we can’t process consciously.

To overcome this challenge of too much data to process, the brain assigns social group categories to people you come in contact with. It makes processing information efficient. It also produces stereotypes and false narratives about the people you meet.

For instance, “She won’t be able to work late because she has kids,” or, as a white person, “If I see a black person when I walk down a dark street, I better cross to the other side of the street to be safe.” These are assumptions people make that may or may not be true.

How to Change the Game

Banaji and Greenwald believe that our perceptions of others are not ours at all; they are a product of the cultural beliefs we grew up with. They developed the Implicit Aptitude Test (IAT), available online, to show that. And they did.

Once you are aware of your biases, the next step is to change the narrative and bust the bias. That is what Michigan Sheriff Christopher R. Swanson of Genesee County did when confronted with protestors, reported The New York Times.

Swanson removed his helmet and other officers put down their batons to walk with the crowds of protestors. In that act, Swanson, and other police officers in other cities who took similar actions, began to change the story—and the game.

But busting a bias can take years and, in some cases, generations. It also demands self-awareness—in our leaders, and in oneself—and a willingness to confront and do the often-difficult work of revising the story by changing the personal attitudes, beliefs and behaviors that underpin it.

M. Carolyn Miller, MA, is a strategic partner with Continuum Consulting Services, LLC. She designs and develops creative learning experiences, from simple how-to articles with infographics to immersive, story- and game-driven simulations.