The Embodied Biased Mind

This post about embodied cognition and implicit bias by Céline Leboeuf is the second post of this week’s series on An Introduction to Implicit Bias: Knowledge, Justice, and the Social Mind (Routledge, 2020). Find the other posts here.

We often think of our mental lives as “in our heads.” This comes out in idioms such as “it’s all in your head,” “my head is in the clouds,” or “it never entered my head.” These idioms usually refer to our thoughts, emotions, or desires. Is this language also relevant to implicit biases? In fact, discussions of implicit bias typically refer to implicit biases as “in our minds.” For example, in its FAQ on the Implicit Association Test, the researchers at Project Implicit respond to the question of the relationship between implicit biases and culture in these terms: “even if our attitudes and beliefs come from our culture, they are still in our own minds” (Project Implicit). But if we speak of implicit biases as “in the mind,” does that signify that they are exclusively located in the head?

Implicit biases, I argue, should not be conceived of as “inside the head” of individuals, but rather as embodied and social.


The first step in this argument is to show that implicit biases are perceptual habits. To do so, we can lean on the vast empirical literature on implicitly biases. Consider Wilson, Hugenberg, and Rule’s study of implicit bias, which suggests that “people have a bias to perceive young Black men as bigger (taller, heavier, more muscular) and more physically threatening (stronger, more capable of harm) than young White men” (2017, p. 1). Participants in this study were biased in such a way that they perceived the world (the appearance of the men) in ways affected by race. More generally, when we are biased, we perceive the environment and other persons in ways that are structured by social categories.

Now, what makes implicit biases perceptual habits? Here we can point to the relative automaticity of implicit biases and the fact that many of them are learned to make this point. We don’t neutrally record the size and muscularity of young Black men and young White men. Instead, under the influence of implicit bias, we see the former as bigger and more threatening than the latter, although we are not explicitly aware that we see them that way. In the case of social categories, such as gender and race, these patterns of perception are instilled in us through a process of learning and socialization.

Even if one agrees that implicit biases are perceptual habits, this still will not show why they should be conceived of as embodied. To support this claim, consider the phenomenology of habit-acquisition. Let’s say that you’re learning to play the piano. At first, you will need to focus on the exact position of your fingers on the keys. With time, though, what will make you a skilled piano player is precisely the fact that you lose the explicit awareness of the positioning of your fingers. Otherwise, your playing would be rather laborious and lack fluidity! Habits require a “medium” to inhere in for them to become habitual, and this medium, I contend, is the body. In fact, in his Phenomenology of Perception, the French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty describes habits as “knowledge in the hands” (2002, p. 166). Thus, the phenomenology of habit-formation suggests that we should think of habits, including perceptual habits, as embodied. In light of this, to have an implicit bias simply means to “use the body” in a biased way, more specifically, one which escapes explicit awareness.


Lastly, I believe that implicit biases are not only embodied, but social. As I indicated above, we acquire at least some implicit biases through socialization. Note, though, that at the same time we communicate our acquired biases to others in our social setting. So, there is a feedback loop between the acquisition and the communication of biases. Consequently, we can say that individual habits are shaped by the social world in which we find ourselves and that the social world is itself shaped by our habitual ways of interacting with and perceiving others. Implicit biases they are not just enacted in individual bodily behavior, but that they are enacted by social groups as a whole.

Putting these claims together, I advance that implicit biases should not be conceived as “in our heads,” but rather as embodied and part of the fabric of the social world.

Learn more about the book, including its chapters with implications about criminal justice and policing from the recent series of blog posts over at Imperfect Cognitions.

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