An introduction to implicit bias

Over the past half million years, the human brain has evolved to become the most sophisticated and successful survival computer that the planet has ever seen. Containing over 100 billion neurons, each capable of linking into an almost infinite number of synaptic pathways, it is fast, adaptable and efficient. These characteristics have allowed humans to rise to and remain at the top of the planetary food chain. Quite simply, we can out-think any other species known.

At the same time, our brains are far from perfect. Some of the same characteristics that make them so successful actually get in our way as often as they help us. That’s because efficiency and speed often come at the cost of accuracy. Without even realizing it, we take mental shortcuts that often lead us to make inaccurate assessments of the situations and people with whom we deal. Put us in stressful environments, and a whole different array of short cuts, compromises and trade-offs emerge. Welcome to the world of unconscious bias.

Unconscious bias, evolving out of necessity to help humans conserve mental energy and make decisions more quickly, can have damaging effects if those decisions are based on inaccurate or incomplete reference points (such as stereotypes) and associations surrounding racial or other group identifiers. A commonly cited example highlighted in the New York Times noted that, “…[Implicit bias] can….take the form of unconsciously associating certain identities, like African-American, with undesirable attributes, like violence..”

Implicit bias training in organizational development and police force training

It seems logical that, in the wake of increasing incidents involving police shootings of unarmed African America males, police forces across the country would benefit from training that addresses the impact of implicit bias amongst officers. But will that make a difference? Skeptics of implicit bias training raise valid concerns about its effectiveness, especially for police officers who are often placed in high-pressure situations in which they may be more likely than other professions to need to rely on quick judgments.

So, can the harmful (sometimes deadly) effects of implicit bias be reduced by training? A 2012 study conducted at the University of Wisconsin concluded that it can. According to the study:

“We developed a multi-faceted prejudice habit-breaking intervention to produce long-term reductions in implicit race bias. The intervention is based on the premise that implicit bias is like a habit that can be reduced through a combination of awareness of implicit bias, concern about the effects of that bias, and the application of strategies to reduce bias. In a 12-week longitudinal study, people who received the intervention showed dramatic reductions in implicit race bias. People who were concerned about discrimination or who reported using the strategies showed the greatest reductions. The intervention also led to increases in concern about discrimination and personal awareness of bias over the duration of the study. People in the control group showed none of the above effects. Our results raise the hope of reducing persistent and unintentional forms of discrimination that arise from implicit bias.”

While follow-up studies have not been successful at demonstrating long-term reductions in the level of bias itself (as measured by the Harvard IAT), they have shown tantalizing evidence that training on the subject (including strategies for minimizing the activation of our bias) can lead to behavior change. More importantly, it can lead to improvements in operational metrics which reflect the presence of bias (such as the hiring of women and minorities into certain roles and positions). We’ll explore this evidence further in future posts.

Conclusion and outlook for future development and applications for implicit bias training

To explore more about the topic of unconscious bias training, we encourage you to sign up for our “Introduction to Blindsided: Uncovering, Understanding & Managing Unconscious Bias” email series. In it, we introduce some of the core concepts behind this revolutionary new program and the positive effects it can have on any organization’s culture and productivity.