Reducing Implicit Bias

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In May of 2018, Starbucks closed all stores for a portion of the day so employees could complete racial bias education. The activity occurred following several cases of differential treatment expressed toward racial minorities in their stores.

Starbucks officials focused on implicit bias, or a form of bias that people express automatically and do so unintentionally. Unlike explicit bias, such as saying a racial slur, people do not deliberately express implicit bias.

How, then, do we reduced or eliminate something of which we are not aware and do not intentionally express? Patricia Devine, of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and her colleagues recently examined this very question. 

They approached the problem from the perspective that bias is like a habit that needs to be broken. Thus, they developed an intervention where people learned about bias, the effects it had, and steps they could take to reduce it.

Examples of strategies included recognizing stereotypical responses, imagining people who counter popularly held stereotypes, thinking about people as unique individuals instead of members of a homogeneous group, engaging in perspective taking, and being around others who are different than you.

Devine and colleagues found that people who went through the training showed a large decrease in their implicit bias, and the reduction persisted over time. The intervention was most effective for people who showed concern about bias and employed some of the techniques they learned.

Returning to the Starbucks case, it is debatable whether a single afternoon of diversity training makes a difference. However, Devine and colleagues show that well-planned, long term interventions can work, especially when the people are motivated to use the bias-reducing strategies in their lives.