Motivation and emotion/Book/2020/Unconscious bias and emotion

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Emotion and unconscious bias:
What is the role of emotion in unconscious bias?

Overview[edit | edit source]

Figure 1. Recognising unconscious bias

Important points about this section:

  1. What is unconscious bias?
  2. How does emotion influence bias? What is the role of bias in memory for emotions? What emotionally driven motivations may create bias opinions?
  3. What are the implications for social situations and objectivity?

Focus questions:

  • What is unconscious bias?
  • What is the role of emotion in unconscious bias?
  • How does emotion and unconscious bias effect objectivity?

What is unconscious bias?[edit | edit source]

Unconscious bias (commonly known as implicit bias) refers to the attitudes, beliefs, values or stereotypes that affect our understanding, behaviour, and decisions without an individual’s awareness. These automatic biases can be both good or bad evaluations, however they are unintentional and not easily accessible for the individual. Emotions or certain scenarios can evoke unconscious biases (The Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity, 2015).

People maintain preferences outside of awareness for certain social, ethnic and cultural groups over others, even if they deny those beliefs when asked about them. The Implicit Association Test (IAT) illustrates that unconscious attitudes of certain groups are easily formed but challenging to change. In the IAT [Provide more detail] database, many of the white and Asian participants in the US exhibit an unconscious bias to prefer white people over black people and many exhibit a unconscious preference for young versus old people and men over women (Bower, 2006)[why?].

Origins of bias[edit | edit source]

Figure 2. Goldyne (2007) framework for conceptualizing the origins of bias

The origins of bias have been divided by Goldyne (2007) into emotionally driven motives that conflict with the motivation to be impartial; and non-emotional factors such as knowledge or information-processing style which may influence objectivity. Emotions such as pity, anger, and guilt may create unconscious motivations that conflict with the motivation to be objective in given situations. the expert’s emotional motivations have been described in terms of internal factors (originating from personality or experiences) and external factors (originating from the present environment and from individuals provoking similar responses in the expert). See Figure 2 for Goldyne's (2007) framework for conceptualizing the origins of bias.

How is unconscious bias detected?[edit | edit source]

As unconscious bias is invisible and usually denied, [grammar?] it creates challenges when looking into objectivity in specific regards, such as racism and expert’s recommendations. A suggestion to detect unconscious bias is to use a proactive approach—[grammar?]in which the expert actively engages in introspective (usually writing) tasks in attempt to discover potential sources of bias. Each task gives a slightly different perspective, however they are all are intended to signal the expert’s recognition of motivations and non-emotional factors (e.g. knowledge) that previously have been difficult to recognize (Goldyne, 2007).

An example of a bias detection task would be to ask: “Am I motivated to protect, humiliate, punish, compete with, gain from, be liked by, control, take advantage of, defy, or appear more competent to a significant person in the case?” (Goldyne, 2007).

Implicit Association Test (IAT)
  • The IAT is a measure used to detect the strength of a person's unconscious association between mental representations of concepts and evaluations, which people may be unwilling or unable to report otherwise
  • Try the IAT

Emotion and unconscious bias: How does emotion influence bias?[edit | edit source]

Emotions (such as anger, guilt, shame, affection, etc) can rise to emotionally driven unconscious motivations which conflict with a personal motivation to be objective. These unconscious motivations can present from internal factors (stemming from personality or past experiences) or external factors (stemming from the current situation) (Goldyne, 2007).

Bias in memory for emotions[edit | edit source]

It has been suggested that memory for emotions is pretty accurate, however emotions are associated with bias in recalling past emotions[factual?]. Unconscious bias occurs as memories of emotional states are revised through personal experience. Our biased memories therefore modify future goals, ideas and emotions (Levine & Safer, 2002). Predictors of how people will recall past emotions include their current emotional state and interpretations of past experience. People may, in turn, underestimate or overestimate their past emotions, creating an unconscious bias for memories of emotions.[for example?]

Levine and Safer [year?] conducted their own study to investigate bias in memory for emotions, in which memory was assessed for how anxious colleague[spelling?] students felt before an exam. They randomly allocated students into two groups; one group were told their exam grade before scoring their pre-exam emotions, the other group were not told. They found that students that[grammar?] were told their grade (which was good) before they scored underestimated their pre-exam emotions, and students that[grammar?] were told they did poorly before they scored overestimated their emotions. This study suggests that memories for emotions can be biased by a change in current emotions through the immediate distortion of memory for their pre-exam emotions.

Emotional states and unconscious bias[edit | edit source]

There is support to suggest that emotional states and regulation can influence unconscious bias. Barazzone and Davey[grammar?] (2009) study displays that emotional states can influence bias through a homophone spelling task. They provoked angry, anxious, happy, or neutral mood states in participants through directed imagery scripts and music. Researchers gave participants a homophone spelling task, where the presenter orally delivered the word and the participant had to spell it out (i.e., dye/die). This allows the researcher to be able to examine their unconscious bias and they found that participants who were in angry or anxious mood states were more likely to choose the negative version of the word as compared to participants who were induced to be in happy or neutral mood states.

Reiter's (2013) study was used to explore how emotion regulation can influence implicit (interpretation bias) biases. Participants engaged in angry and neutral mood inductions through memory recall and writing tasks, then were asked to reappraise their emotions. After, participants completed a demographics survey, the Difficulties in Emotion Regulation Scale (DERS), the Mood and Anxiety Symptom Questionnaire- Short Form (MASQ), the State-Trait Anger Expression Inventory-2 (STAXI), and The Life Orientation Test Revised questionnaire (LOT-R). Then, participants completed baseline emotion ratings, in which they were asked to rate the extent that they were experiencing several emotions (such as angry, annoyed or cheerful) at the time of testing. Results suggest that participants are likely to exhibit a positive or neutral bias in interpreting ambiguous stimuli. However, there was an increase in negative responses elicited in the Angry condition compared to Neutral and Baseline conditions. Participants exhibited an increased negative implicit bias in the angry condition relative to the neutral condition. This suggests that emotions do play a role in implicit bias and thus affect our responses and behaviour.

Emotions and the motivation to be objective[edit | edit source]

Emotions such as anger, guilt, affection, humiliation, contempt and more may uncover unconscious motivations that conflict with the motivation to be objective in particular situations (Goldyne, 2007). This relationship is extremely important to acknowledge in regard to experts’ opinions and testimonies. This phenomena has been defined by Sattar and colleagues (2004) as ‘forensic countertransference’, which is all feelings (conscious or unconscious) that are induced in forensic experts during evaluation, in response to environmental variables that may influence their objectivity and bias their work. Emotionally driven unconscious motivations (such as appearing to be more superior or competent or control) can challenge an individual's (i.e., an expert) conscious motivation (goal) to be objective and create unconscious bias.

Case study

A forensic psychologist is motivated to appear extremely competent and adequate for the court jury, which prompts her to continuously advocate an issue that is discussed in current literature and relates it to defend her client.[Provide more detail]

What emotionally driven motivations may create bias individuals?[edit | edit source]

Emotionally driven motivations may bias an individual and create issues with objectivity. Emotional motivations that may bias an individual include:

  1. to appear more adequate, superior or competent
  2. to be liked
  3. to help or protect
  4. control
  5. avoid harming others

Quiz[edit | edit source]

1 What would be considered an emotionally driven motivation that may bias an individual?

avoiding being disliked
to compete
to defy
all of the above

2 Unconscious bias is commonly known as:

Explicit bias
Attentional bias
Self serving bias
Implicit bias
there is no other name

3 Which of the following is not a form of bias:


How to minimize unconscious bias[edit | edit source]

The use of introspective tasks in proactive detection is also used in prevention of unconscious bias. The tasks are designed to prompt individual's[grammar?] recognition of motivations and non-emotional factors that are difficult to report. As discussed above, this is a powerful tool to examine sources of bias and thus prevent it from occurring (Goldyne, 2007). An expert could ask themselves the following questions when examining unconscious biases:

#"who are the significant individuals connected to this situation?";
  1. "Is my knowledge too limited in this scenario?";
  2. "have my emotions toward a person associated with the situation contributed to my motivations? What are my motivations? Am I motivated to help, protect, punish, compete with, be liked by, control, take advantage of, or appear more competent to this person?";
  3. "Do emotions, motivations, or non-emotional factors (i.e., knowledge) that I have experienced in prior occasions influence my examination of this situation?"

What are the implications for social situations and objectivity?[edit | edit source]

Unconscious bias & racism. Illustration by Jordan Mondell

[Provide more detail]

Racism[edit | edit source]

Unconscious biases can lead to unintentional racism, which those who perpetrate it usually do not notice. The foundation of bias is established through learned stereotypes and prejudice, where a group or individual is judged based on preconceived habits, traits, abilities, or expectations (Moule, 2009). Some examples of this include:

  1. crossing the street to avoid another person (in which the individual has prejudged the other in some way - even if they are not consciously aware of it);
  2. moving value items (such as a wallet) once seeing another person

Allport coined the term “re-fencing” to describe when we are confronted with evidence opposite to a stereotype we believe, we make exceptions: “When a fact cannot fit into a mental field, the exception is acknowledged, but the field is hastily fenced in again and not allowed to remain dangerously open” (Allport 1954; as cited by Moule, 2009). When this is referred to unconscious bias and racism, individuals can make excuses for unconscious bias to make themselves believe that they are not racist.

Bias in experts[edit | edit source]

Unconscious bias of health care providers can affect treatments delivered and contribute to poor health outcomes or wrong diagnosis. White-Means and colleagues[grammar?] 2009 study using the IAT found that tested health care students (such as pharmacy, nursing and medical students) exhibit unconscious race and skin tone biases. Students had preference for White versus Black individuals and light skin versus dark skin individuals. Specifically, this study showed that students have challenges in accurately describing elements of culturally competent health care. This included effectively using an unskilled interpreter to consult a patient, discussing a patient’s perspective [say what?] illness and healing and medical therapy during a patient consultation. Thus, these challenges can result in poorer health care use and outcomes for patients with diverse cultural backgrounds.

Unconscious bias is found in experts in the legal system and may affect objectivity in cases. Goldyne (2009) has noted that an expert’s fund of knowledge that is relevant to an evaluation may affect objectivity. Differences in knowledge from expert to expert may stem from professional background, training, clinical experience, or keeping up to date with current literature. For example, Gold (1998) stated a forensic psychiatrist who does not know that women often fail to report unwanted sexual conduct in the workplace could when evaluating a client alleging sexual harassment, interpret non-reporting as evidence that she was not distressed.

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

Unconscious bias refers to the attitudes, beliefs, values or stereotypes that affect our understanding, behaviour, and decisions without awareness (The Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity, 2015). Emotional states, the relationship between emotions and the motivation to objective [say what?] and memory for emotions are associated with unconscious bias.

Emotional states such as angry[awkward expression?], annoyed or anxious can influence unconscious bias and thus change our behaviours (Barazzone, et al. 2009). Emotions are associated with bias in recollecting past emotions. Unconscious bias occurs as memories of emotional states are adapted consequent to experience and wants. Thus, our biased memories of emotions change our future aspirations and emotions (Levine & Safer, 2002).

Emotions and situations can evoke unconscious biases, which in turn can influence our behaviour and lead to large problems such as racism in healthcare. We can challenge our biases by asking ourselves objective questions - this is an extremely important and useful tool in regards to reducing racism and improving health care treatment (White-Means, et al. 2009; Goldyne, 2007).

See also[edit | edit source]

  1. Unconscious bias (Wikipedia)
  2. Unconscious motivation (Book chapter, 2020)
  3. Unconscious motivation (Book chapter, 2019)

References[edit | edit source]

Barazzone, N., & Davey, G. C. L. (2009). Anger potentiates the reporting of threatening interpretations: An experimental study. Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 23(4), 489–495. doi:10.1016/j.janxdis.2008.10.007

Bower, B. (2006). The bias finders: A test of unconscious attitudes polarizes psychologists. Science News, 169, 250 - 253. doi:10.2307/4019220

Gold, L. M. (1998). Addressing Bias in the Forensic Assessment of Sexual Harassment Claims. The Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law, 26(4), 563 - 578. Retrieved from

Goldyne, A. J. (2007). Minimizing the influence of unconscious bias in evaluations: A practical guide. The Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law, 35(1), 60 - 66. doi:

Levine, L. J. & Safer, M. A. (2002). Sources of bias in memory for emotions. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 11(5), 169 - 173. doi:10.1111/1467-8721.00193

Moule, J. (2009). Understanding unconscious bias and unintentional racism. Phi Delta Kappan International, 90(5), 320 - 326. doi:10.1177/003172170909000504

Reiter, K. (2013). The influence of anger on implicit biases. Master's Theses (2009). Retrieved from

The Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity. (2015). Understanding implicit bias. Retrieved from

White-Means, S., Dong, Z., Hufstader, M. & Brown, L. T. (2009). Cultural competency, race, and skin tone bias among pharmacy, nursing, and medical students: Implications for addressing health disparities. Medical Care Research and Review, 66(4), 436 - 455. doi:10.1177/1077558709333995

External links[edit | edit source]