Biased by our Imaginings

Today’s post is written by Ema Sullivan-Bissett, who is a Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Birmingham. Here she overviews her paper ‘Biased by Our Imaginings’, recently published in Mind & Language.


In my paper I propose and defend a new model of implicit bias according which they are constituted by unconscious imaginings. As part of setting out my view I defend the coherence of unconscious imagination and argue that it does not represent a revisionary notion of imagination.

Implicit biases have been identified as ‘the processes or states that have a distorting influence on behaviour and judgement, and are detected in experimental conditions with implicit measures’ (Holroyd 2016: 154). They are posited as items which cause common microbehaviours or microdiscriminations that cannot be tracked, predicted, or explained by explicit attitudes.

The canonical view of implicit biases is that they are associations. The idea is that one’s concept of, say, woman is associated with a negative valence, or another concept (weakness) such that the activation of one part of the association triggers the other. On this view implicit biases are concatenations of mental items, with no syntactic structure.

Recently though, there has been a move away from the associative picture to thinking of implicit biases as having propositional contents and as not being involved in associative processes. This kind of view is motivated by some empirical work (reviewed at length in Mandelbaum 2016). In light of this shift, new models of implicit bias have been proposed to accommodate their propositional nature, these include models according to which implicit biases are unconscious beliefs (Mandelbaum 2016), and patchy endorsements (Levy 2015).

What is particularly attractive about my view, I think, is that it is uniquely placed to accommodate the heterogeneity of implicit biases with respect to their structure suggested by empirical work. In particular, my model can accommodate implicit biases being structured associatively (i.e., multiple unconscious imaginings associatively linked) or non-associatively (i.e., single imaginings). Other models of bias cannot accommodate this heterogeneity in virtue of their endorsing either associationism about implicit bias, or the claim that they are propositionally structured.

I also argue that my view has the explanatory credentials won by accommodating what I identify as the primary features of bias and does not face the problems raised against the belief model.

At the end of the paper I speak to issues regarding moral status and intervention, specifically whether my view limits our ability to hold people accountable for their biases on the grounds of them being morally problematic (I argue that it does not), and whether my view is consistent with the data on intervention strategies (I argue that it is).

The take home message then is this: the functional profile of implicit biases can be captured on my model which appeals to unconscious imagination. Implicit biases being constituted by unconscious imaginings coheres with our understanding both of biases and with the functional role of unconscious imaginings in cognition. 

Although unconscious imagination is a category we have not attended to much, I suggest it is a legitimate and non-revisionary combination of two things we know a lot about; the unconscious, and the imagination. My view can accommodate key features of implicit bias, as well as heterogeneity in this category. I suggest, then, that implicit biases are best understood as constituted by unconscious imaginings.

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