Are implicit bias interventions effective?
The unconscious, automatic components of prejudice have been investigated since the 1980s with the work of Patricia Devine. Her research showed that automatic activation of stereotypes and biased attitudes occur in both high- and low-prejudice persons. Social psychologists, Mahzarin Banaji and Tony Greenwald, followed up on her work, originally coining the term “implicit social cognitions”, referring to the attitudes or stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions, and decisions in an unconscious manner. These attitudes are considered “biases” because they tend to link certain social and cultural groups with stereotypes. Early theories presumed that implicit biases were immutable and fixed in cognition. However, later research has shown that certain techniques, such as mental imagery, may have the potential to change these unconscious attitudes and stereotypes.
Recent studies have measured the short-term outcomes of bias-reducing interventions; however, there has been little investigation into the long-term impacts of these interventions. The most compelling evidence into lasting effects comes from an experimental study of 18 universities across the U.S. Results of the study showed that bias-reducing interventions were immediately effective; yet, none of the interventions produced a significant effect after one to two days. Psychologists and sociologists have interpreted these findings as evidence that implicit bias is inflexible and difficult to change.
Implicit bias: the bias-of-crowds model
The inflexibility of individuals’ implicit biases towards psychological and sociological interventions may reflect another phenomenon. The bias-of-crowds model states that implicit bias may be driven by the mental accessibility of certain concepts linked to social groups. The accessibility of attitudes and stereotypes can vary as a feature of the person (i.e. how often I choose to think something) and as an aspect of the environment (i.e. how often certain information is presented to me). However, recent evidence suggests that cognitive accessibility of stereotypes is more likely to vary based on the environment, rather than as a feature of the individual. In simple terms, this may mean that more frequent exposure to indirect or direct external prejudices (i.e. from family, friends, or education) will lead to a greater likelihood of our biases being reinforced.
Fundamentally, the average levels of implicit bias in a community may reflect the structural inequalities of that environment. On an individual level, unconscious biases and stereotypes are malleable and can fluctuate quite regularly. Individual’s implicit biases are likely to change from one point of time to another; however, the aggregate estimate of implicit bias in an individual is more greatly dependent on their social environment. Structural inequalities and inequities may play a much greater role in determining long-term implicit biases.
So, how can we change implicit biases?
Based on evidence from the bias-of-crowds model, the most direct way of changing implicit bias is by changing the structural and systematic inequalities of an individual’s environment. Yet, this is a demanding task, as a change in structural inequities often requires new or amended policies. Instead of focusing on systematic change, I would like to suggest a few means of bias-reducing interventions that may be applicable to current situations.
- Individual habits- Consciously recognize your own stereotypes and find ways to replace them. Do not fit cultural groups into your predetermined stereotypes; rather, find logical and situational explanations for an individual’s behavior. Even further, it may be necessary to step out of your comfort zone and engage with individuals who belong to groups that are unlike your own. Data from the studies of Patricia Devine and Will Cox (University of Wisconsin-Madison) show that these interventions work to reduce implicit bias.
- Temporary interventions – These types of interventions may be applicable at the time of making a decision, such as hiring an applicant or
admitting an individual to a university. For example, having admissions committees consciously counteract stereotypical beliefs before reviewing applications may work to reduce implicit bias.
- Long-term interventions – According to bias-of-crowds, changing social environments may produce long-term effects on individual implicit bias. For example, increasing faculty diversity at universities or companies may combat unconscious stereotypical attitudes in students or other faculty members. Even further, removing cues of past inequality, such as Confederate monuments, may act to reduce overall implicit bias.
The two interventions that I have mentioned here are not foolproof. The correlation between implicit bias and social environment does not necessarily imply that unconscious biases and stereotypes are caused by structural inequality. More research needs to be done into the effect of the social environment on unconscious attitudes and biases before enacting long-term interventions. Yet, I would still like to emphasize one thing. Implicit bias is real. We all suffer from unconscious stereotypes and attitudes. Working to overcome these biases will move us closer towards diminishing racist attitudes that plague society. Reducing implicit bias is a minor step towards solving the major problem of racism in today’s America.
Project Implicit – Harvard University: https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/takeatest.html
Kirwan Institute – OSU: http://kirwaninstitute.osu.edu/research/understanding-implicit-bias/
University Counseling Center – Notre Dame: https://ucc.nd.edu/diversity-inclusion-social-justice/social-justice-anti-racism-allyship/
Unconscious Bias Resources – UCSF: https://diversity.ucsf.edu/resources/unconscious-bias-resources
Find a Therapist: https://www.findcbt.org/FAT/
The information and suggestions that I have provided here are in no means professional. This post has been reviewed by a faculty member of the University of Notre Dame Department of Psychology to verify accuracy.
Devine, P. G. (1989). Stereotypes and prejudice: Their automatic and controlled components. Journal of personality and social psychology, 56(1), 5.
Greenwald, A. G., & Banaji, M. R. (1995). Implicit social cognition: attitudes, self-esteem, and stereotypes. Psychological review, 102(1), 4.x
Nordell, S. (2017, July 10). Is This How Discrimination Ends? Retrieved August 23, 2020, from https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2017/05/unconscious-bias-training/525405/
Vuletich, H. A., & Payne, B. K. (2019). Stability and change in implicit bias. Psychological Science, 30(6), 854-862.