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Examining the Facts on Implicit Bias

5/8/2017 6:00:00 AM

Examining the Facts on Implicit Bias

Richard R. Johnson, Ph.D.  May, 2017 from the Dolan Consulting Group - Research Brief
A number of sources have claimed that public employees are influenced by implicit biases. The U.S. Department of Justice, the Police Executive Research Forum, and the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, for example, have suggested that law enforcement officers hold unconscious, implicit biases against people of color.1 It has been argued that these implicit biases cause police officers to enforce the law in ways that discriminate against members of racial minority groups. Similar claims have been made against prosecutors, judges, and probation officers as an explanation for the disproportionate representation of racial minorities in our prisons and jails. Allegations have also been levelled against teachers and school administrators, suggesting that they treat white students preferentially over minority students, and that they do so as a result of these same unconscious, implicit biases.

One of the remedies often suggested to address implicit bias is some form of implicit bias training.3 Are these claims supported by the available evidence?  The purpose of this brief is the factual examination of the empirical evidence surrounding the concept of implicit bias, implicit bias tests, and the relationship between implicit bias test scores and actual discriminatory behavior. 
What is Implicit Bias?
In recent years the concept of implicit bias has received a great deal of attention in the United States. Implicit bias is an idea suggesting that, regardless of our conscious thoughts and feelings, we each hold biased judgements in our subconscious against people that are different. For example, it has been argued that Caucasian people who make a concerted effort to avoid discriminating against African-Americans still hold untrue racist stereotypes and opinions about AfricanAmericans in their subconscious minds.4 It has even been asserted that individuals often hold negative implicit bias attitudes toward members of their own racial or gender group. In other words, African-American teachers may be more punitive toward African-American students because society has imbedded into their subconscious false stereotypes about African-Americans as poorly performing students.5

It has been asserted that these hidden, unconscious biases cause individuals to act in discriminatory ways toward others, even though individuals do not consciously intend to do so. Advocates of the concept of implicit bias suggest that these unconscious biases result in many instances of discrimination against women and members of racial minority groups. These instances of discrimination include hiring, promotion, and assignment discrimination in the workplace, grade and punishment discrimination within schools, and diagnostic and treatment decisions within hospitals and doctors’ offices.6 Accusations have been made that implicit bias is affecting the decisions of those who work within the criminal justice system. Police officers, prosecutors, judges, corrections officers, and probation / parole officers have been accused of making decisions biased against African-Americans due to implicit biases.7    
The concept of implicit bias, first developed by sociologists during the 1960s, has led to the creation of psychological tests in the 1990s that purport to measure one’s unconscious, hidden biases.8 Training workshops have sprouted up in the 2010s that are designed to help individuals discover and confront their implicit biases.9 
How do Implicit Bias Tests Work?


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