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7 tips to strengthen the mind through identifying and overcoming implicit bias

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James Gray Robinson

James Gray Robinson.

Science explains that our minds are like icebergs: Our conscious awareness represents 10% of the iceberg above the surface of the water, and our unconscious awareness represents 90% of the iceberg unseen below the surface of the water. We are not aware of 90% of our thoughts/brain functions, which are unconscious—by definition.

Implicit bias, which is a relatively recent concept in the psychiatric field, attempts to describe the unconscious prejudices and stereotypes we form without conscious awareness. It is human nature to have biases, whether we want to admit to them or not.

Many Lawyers are familiar with implicit bias, as it pertains to the legal profession. Various studies have identified implicit bias in the legal world in: (1) hiring, promotion, pay and responsibilities, as these concepts are affected by gender, race, appearance, age and sexual orientation; (2) jury selection; (3) client representation; and (4) dealing with colleagues.

The term “unconscious bias” was first used in 1995 by psychologists Mahzarin Banaji and Anthony Greenwald, when they argued that behavior is affected by unconscious associations and judgments. Biases are formed through our education and experiences, as well as our cultural history. Ironically, intelligence has nothing to do with it. In fact, the more intelligent one is, the higher the likelihood that they have implicit bias.

There is a test available online known as the Implicit Association Test, developed by Greenwald and Banaji, that has torn the cover off implicit bias. It demonstrates that our concepts of “good/bad,” “right/wrong” and “like/dislike” are the result of implicit bias, and no one is free from bias.

As we become more and more familiar with the fact that a large part of the mind is unknown to us, we become more aware of the effects of our unconscious mind on our conscious mind. When the conscious mind conflicts with our unconscious mind, the higher the chances are we will have anxiety, stress and ultimately burnout.

When working with lawyers and other professionals who are experiencing burnout, stress, anxiety or depression, I often find that there are unconscious traumas, beliefs, decisions, emotions or thoughts that conflict with their goals, work, expectations and dreams. For example, if we unconsciously believe that we are not good enough, no amount of success will make us feel any better.

My clients describe the effect, metaphorically, like driving a car with one foot fully on the gas pedal and the other fully on the brake pedal. They feel like their wheels are spinning, and yet they are not going anywhere. They feel stuck.

Neuroscience indicates that the brain automatically incorporates unconscious emotions and conscious thought in mental processes, especially in the decision-making process. This can wreak havoc with attempts to make rational, logical decisions that are free from emotion or bias. Here are some common hidden biases I encounter among lawyers:

1.) I am a fraud.

2.) I don’t deserve to succeed.

3.) I am a victim.

4.) Work/life is hard.

5.) You must work hard and sacrifice to be successful.

6.) Relationships are painful.

7.) Making it to the top is for other people.

8.) Other people are lucky, not me.

9.) I am not good enough.

10.) I should be ashamed.

If you say these things to yourself, notice your body’s reaction to the statement. Does it feel correct, or is it a lie? The problem is your conscious mind can’t tell you. You can only discern the effects of these biases through behavioral, physical and emotional symptoms. If you are exhibiting the symptoms of stress—mental and physical exhaustion, decreasing performance, negative emotions like blame, shame, guilt or despair—you may have implicit biases that are conflicting with your conscious desires.

Here are some ways to identify implicit bias (in addition to taking the Implicit Association Test, which is free online):

1.) Make a chart of personal likes and dislikes. How you decide which column to put items is probably a result of implicit bias.

2.) Make a list of what you believe. Then ask yourself, “Why do I believe that? When did I decide that was true? What if it wasn’t true?”

3.) List the negative emotions you experience daily, whether they include fear, sadness, anger, guilt, shame, terror, depression, rage, hate, jealousy, lust or disgust. Bringing unconscious emotions to conscious awareness and putting a name to them can help you to identify what needs to change.

4.) When you consider what you don’t like about your life, identify what beliefs you would have to change to change your life. Any resistance to changing your beliefs could come from implicit biases.

What we perceive in life is a projection of our unconscious mind; the way we see the world reflects our inner thoughts, emotions and beliefs. We are always looking for evidence that our beliefs are correct, also known as cognitive bias. If you believe that you are not good enough, you will focus on all of the evidence that you don’t measure up, even though your belief might be incorrect. Ironically, we associate with people who will confirm that we are defective.

Here are some strategies for changing our implicit bias:

1.) When we discover that we don’t like some aspect of our lives, focus on what we want instead. If we are stressed out, focus on being relaxed and the thoughts and feelings associated with being relaxed. For example, if we are stressed out about a case or client, take five minutes to focus on the feelings of floating in a comfortable canoe going downstream on a warm sunny day. Then see if the stress level has dropped. Repeat.

2.) When we feel stressed out, focus on our thoughts immediately before we started experiencing stress and identify what the thought was that preceded it. Chances are, it had something to do with one of the common biased thoughts listed above.

3.) Go through the list of common biases listed above and see if any apply. If they do, we have to focus on more positive, constructive beliefs about ourselves. What is the opposite of that bias? For example, if we believe that we are not good enough, we have to change that to “we are more than good enough.” The simple change of “not” to “more than” can make a huge difference in how we perceive our reality, and therefore how we experience life.

Once we become aware of our implicit bias, we can decide to change it. Until we are aware, we are like puppets being controlled by these biases’ strings.

James Gray Robinson was a third-generation trial attorney specializing in family law for 27 years in his native North Carolina. Burned out and emotionally spent practicing law, he quit in 2004 and spent the next 16 years doing extensive research and innovative training to help others facing burnout and personal crises to heal. In 2017, at age 64, using the tools and strategies he learned, Robinson passed the Oregon bar exam and is again a licensed attorney. Learn more about his work at or email him at [email protected]. is accepting queries for original, thoughtful, nonpromotional articles and commentary by unpaid contributors to run in the Your Voice section. Details and submission guidelines are posted at “Your Submissions, Your Voice.”

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