My name is Naomi Alderson. In 2014, I graduated from Cardiff University and was accepted onto a programme, led by Dr Jonathan Webber, that helped graduates to turn an undergraduate essay on the topic of implicit bias into a publishable paper. My paper, ‘Defining agency after implicit bias’, was published in March 2017 in Philosophical Psychology, and will be summarised here. In writing it, I found more questions concerning agency, cognition and behaviour than I was able to answer; I am going to continue my studies at UCL this September in the hope of getting closer to the truth.
Implicit biases are associations that affect the way we behave in ways that can be difficult to perceive or control. One example is so-called ‘weapon bias’, studied by Keith Payne (2006) among others. Payne showed participants images of gun-shaped objects asked them to make split-second decisions about whether they were guns or not.
He found that many participants were more likely to misidentify harmless objects as guns and to correctly identify guns more quickly if they were shown a picture of a black man’s face than if they were shown a white man’s face, due to an implicit association between black men and guns.
This bias was found even in people with no explicit racial bias and, moreover, was not directly controllable by reflective, deliberative effort: simply concentrating on not being biased was not enough to eliminate its effect.
The resistance of some implicit biases to deliberative control poses a threat to traditional reflectivist accounts of agency, whereby being an agent means being able to deliberatively choose an action and then act it out. If we cannot simply choose to be unbiased, then our implicit biases limit our ability to be agents on this account.
My paper aims to defend and update the reflectivist account of agency by outlining what kinds of control we do have over implicit biases and commenting upon what these forms of control suggest about the nature of agency itself.