The killing of George Floyd by police officers in Minneapolis three months ago and the shooting of Jacob Blake by police in Wisconsin have led the US to a period of reckoning. As thousands have marched in the streets to protest against racial inequality, many others have also been forced to ask some difficult questions about their levels of prejudice.
While some people mistake racism as being only overt prejudice, there is another crucial component that affects our decisions and actions towards others: implicit bias. An implicit bias is any prejudice that has formed unintentionally and without our direct knowledge – and it can often contradict our explicit beliefs and behaviours. Usually, it reflects a mixture of personal experience, attitudes around us as we have grown up, and our wider exposure to society and culture – including the books we read, television we watch and news we follow.
Many police departments in the US have pointed to schemes aimed at tackling implicit bias as evidence of their attempts to root out racism from their ranks. It is an appealing approach – police forces face many challenges when it comes to tackling racism among their officers. Powerful unions and state laws can protect police officers from investigations into misconduct, while officers who have been fired or have resigned in the past are often rehired by other forces that may be unaware of their career history. Dealing with these systemic issues often requires major structural and institutional change, while training individuals to recognise their own unconscious biases can seem relatively easy to implement by comparison.
Patricia Devine, a psychologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who led the study, poses a situation in which a tall, young black man is walking on a college campus. “A student might assume he’s on the basketball team,” she says. In this situation Devine suggests if people check the assumption, they will likely realise there is no evidence other than the stereotype.
Devine says another approach can be to counter or replace stereotypes. But combating stereotypes is not easy. Research due to be published later this year by Devine and her colleagues Xizhou Xie and William Cox, shows encounters that contradict strongly held stereotypes get weighed less heavily in our mind. “We found that for every one person who confirms a bias, it takes three to disconfirm a stereotype to balance it out,” says Cox.
Returning to our example, that would mean the student would need to come across more than three black non-basketball players for every black basketball player they encounter to reduce their bias.
Devine isn’t sure we can ever fully get rid of our biases. She and other experts think that a better approach may be to use the strategies to better manage our behaviour.
But other research by Jennifer Eberhardt, a psychologist at Stanford University, has also found that the more “stereotypically black” a defendant is perceived to be, the more likely they are to be found guilty and sentenced to capital punishment. Prompting police officers to think of capturing, shooting or arresting also leads their eyes to settle on black faces.
How implicit racial bias factors into the decisions taken by officers when they choose to use deadly force is still being researched. Some simulations have found that police officers are more likely to mistakenly shoot unarmed black people, while others have shown that officers are more hesitant to shoot armed black suspects than armed white suspects.
Simulations, however, are different than the real world. And analyses of real-world data have found bias against minorities. One study of all 991 incidences of people being killed by police in the US in 2015, for example, found that black people were more than twice as likely as white people to be unarmed when they were killed by police. “It seem that… officers subconsciously perceived minority civilians to have been a greater threat than they were,” the authors write.
But not everyone is convinced of the effectiveness of implicit bias training, particularly when some police departments are spending millions of dollars to contractors for such training.
“Some believe that if implicit bias training includes actions and ways to channel motivation to control implicit bias, that it can be successful,” says Betsy Paluck, a psychology professor at Princeton University, who co-authored a forthcoming meta-analysis on the effectiveness of prejudice reduction strategies.
“My main concern is that we have scant research showing the efficacy of this or any other implicit bias training method,” she says. “Given the scarcity of research, this is not the kind of bias training or anti-racist training I would reach for in this moment.”
And there is concern that by telling people implicit biases are normal, it may encourage them to rely on them more heavily, refuse to take responsibility for discriminatory behaviour, or avoid having interactions with people from the group they are biased against.
“I think one of the biggest concerns is that implicit bias training might lead people to feel exonerated from biased behaviour, if it stops at implying that bias is beyond their control,” Paluck says.
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