Implicit bias, as defined by the U.S. Department of Justice, is “the unconscious and often subtle associations we make between groups of people and stereotypes about those groups.” Under the idea of implicit bias, an individual does not have direct control over their perceptions, attitudes and motivations. Instead, they are partially shaped by stereotypes and prejudices which are unconsciously formed from experiences.
Over the past few years, implicit bias has become an increasingly popular explanation for suspected incidents of racially biased and discriminatory behavior. Last year, President Casey explicitly cited “implicit racial bias” as the cause of the glue gun incident at Colgate, stating, “It is important that we understand the role that implicit racial bias had in the initial reporting of and responses to the events of last night.” After a manager at a Philadelphia Starbucks called the police on two black men on April 12, Starbucks executives blamed the incident on implicit bias and announced that they would have a company-wide racial-bias training on May 29. Finally, in reaction to the graffiti incident in late March that targeted Chinese students at Colgate, proposals have suggested mandatory implicit bias training be implemented to help combat racial bias and discriminatory behavior.
While the implicit racial bias explanation for discriminatory behavior may seem reasonable, it would only be relevant if changes in a person’s implicit bias have proven to correlate strongly with behavior, as this would indicate that it is implicit bias, and not some other variable, that is influencing behavior. However, research into this topic reveals that perceived prejudicial or discriminatory behavior that resulted from the implicit bias test has been rejected for years. Studies from both psychology and in law fields completely negate any considerable relationship between implicit bias and behavior.
The Implicit Association Test (IAT), which has helped popularize the concept of implicit bias and turn it into a multi-million dollar consulting industry, has become notorious within the psychology community for its unreliability and invalidity as a psychometric test of a person’s implicit associations. Psychologist Dr. Hart Blanton, who has conducted several studies demonstrating the shortcomings of IAT, has compared the test to a Facebook quiz that tells you which Disney princess you are. In fact, research on the IAT has revealed so many scientific issues that even its founders have yielded to many of its criticisms and verified that it has little to no association with explicit bias or behavior.
In 2017, a team of psychologists, including Dr. Brian Nosek, one of the founders of the IAT, published a meta-analysis of 494 studies which investigated the effectiveness of different procedures in changing implicit bias and their resulting effects on behavior. The study estimated a very weak correlation on average (r=.10) between implicit bias and behavior, leading the researchers to conclude that “changes in implicit bias did not mediate changes in explicit bias or behavior.”
In a 2012 Iowa district court ruling, later upheld by the Supreme Court of Iowa in Pippen v. State, Judge Robert Blink reviewed implicit bias evidence from psychologists Dr. Anthony Greenwald, another one of the founders of the IAT, and Dr. Cheryl Kaiser. In his ruling, Blink concluded that, “implicit bias does not mean prejudice, but merely reflects attitudes” and ended his review of the psychologists’ evidence with the
statement, “in legal parlance, this is an opinion of conjecture, not proof of causation.”
Despite the existence of such definitive evidence against the implicit bias-behavior relationship, implicit bias continues to be used by many as a term that disgracefully misuses psychology to make radical accusations about individuals and even entire groups of people being racially biased and prejudiced. Such grand assertions have allowed companies, corporations and universities to justify mandatory implicit bias and diversity training programs which, along with often having their own underlying political motivations, are designed to alter the perceptions and behavior of employees, faculty and students in a direction that the organization thinks is proper.
No matter how noble the cause may be, no person,
organization or government has the right, authority or self-proclaimed ethical duty to invade the unconscious structures of your mind and manipulate them to a state that they deem fit. Not only do such mandatory trainings bear striking resemblance to Orwellian themes of thought policing and forced re-education, but many studies of these trainings have shown them to either have no effect on discriminatory behavior or an effect that makes the behavior worse.
While we all hope that legitimate instances of racially biased and discriminatory behavior can be eliminated at Colgate and beyond, the idea that implicit bias is to blame for such behavior has been demonstrated to be flawed and even counterproductive to the fight against racial bias and discrimination.
Contact Connor Madalo at [email protected]