Wednesday, 25 September 2019

Philosophy, Bias, and Stigma

In this post, I summarise a paper I recently wrote with Kathy Puddifoot (University of Durham), which appears open access in an excellent new book, entitled 'Why Philosophy?' and edited by Diego Bubbio and Jeff Malpas.

Kathy Puddifoot

Philosophical research impacts on our understanding of the world. We argue that empirically informed philosophy can help us both reduce and control the effects of implicit bias on our behaviour, and challenge the stigma associated with the diagnosis of psychiatric disorders. In both cases, knowledge of philosophy and practice of philosophy make a significant contribution to the development of a fairer society.

Implicit bias

Implicit biases are responses to members of social groups (e.g., races, religions, gender, ability groups), associating members with traits in virtue of their social group membership. Biases may occur unintentionally, seemingly without the believer being aware of their occurrence, and are difficult to control. They can lead to the differential treatment of group members.

There is an interesting philosophical debate as to whether implicit biases are: 

(1) associations that people make in their thinking and that can only be changed via retraining (Jerry associates women with physical weakness and dislikes Jenny on that basis); or

(2) belief-like mental states that can be changed via the presentation of evidence (Jerry believes that women are physically weak, assumes that Jenny is also weak, and dislikes her for that).

This discussion is not merely theoretically interesting but it matters to how we go about combatting implicit bias. If we find that implicit biases are associations, we may invest our resources in retraining people's habits. If we find that implicit biases are beliefs, then we can aim to combat them via argumentation and evidence.

Mental health stigma

Stigma is very persistent in the area of mental health, and there is a pervasive “them and us” attitude dividing people who experience mental health issues from people who do not.

Philosophy can help address stigma by showing that there is no sharp divide (but rather significant continuity) between being mentally well and being mentally unwell. Distress can manifest in a variety of ways, ranging from debilitating diseases affecting good functioning for several years, to temporary forms of anxiety or depression that have no long-term consequences for the person's wellbeing.

Lisa Bortolotti

In our own research, we have investigated those reports that are often regarded as marks of irrationality and as symptoms of a mental disorder, such as implausible delusional beliefs and distorted autobiographical memories. Although such reports can emerge in the context of psychiatric conditions, they are not confined to them, and can affect everybody. 

Research suggests that people routinely ignore evidence when it does not lend support to their often-inflated views of themselves, that they reinterpret memories of failure and overestimate future chances of success, and that they see the past as coloured by their current beliefs and values.

The emphasis on continuity can shape our attitudes towards people who experience mental health struggles and also informs the breadth of treatment options available to them.


Philosophical discussions can contribute to developing practical solutions to the problems raised by implicit bias and the mental health stigma. Philosophy therefore has the potential to fundamentally change interpersonal interactions so that they are no longer underwritten by bias, stigma, and prejudice, which distort judgments and lead to unfair treatment.

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