• Mitchell R. Campbell

Target behavior, not implicit bias

I recently stumbled across this article by Dr. Tomas Chamarro-Premuzic in Bloomberg about the current state of corporate diversity training. Dr. Chamarro-Premuzic's viewpoint is generally quite similar to my own: he summarizes a variety of recent social psychological research questioning the connection between implicit bias and behavior and even the utility of implicit bias as a concept.

The evidence is accumulating that implicit bias is, at best, a concept that is difficult to nail down: our tools for measuring it are inadequate and someone's own implicit bias scores can be affected by numerous extraneous factors, which we might not expect for a concept argued to be a more or less stable individual difference. More troublingly, and as Dr. Chamarro-Premuzic points out, there is no compelling evidence (1) that implicit bias trainings lead to long-term, reliable changes in implicit bias, or (2) that changes in implicit bias predict changes in behavior.

There's another point made in this piece I'd like to expand on, which concerns the source of motivation implicit bias trainings rely on. These trainings often take as a given (along with many other diversity trainings), that people are inherently motivated to reduce their own biases. However, even personal experience tells us that many people lack this motivation. Even when people have this motivation, their behaviors may not align with their attitudes, as Dr. Chamarro-Premuzic discusses at length. Furthermore, these trainings often lead to reactance: people don't like being told they are biased, and hearing this may discourage them from making the changes in their behavior necessary to improve their intergroup interactions.

And this is where we get to what I consider the most centrally important point of this article, the emphasis on changing behavior over changing bias. Behavior is the most unambiguous indicator of prejudice, as prejudicial attitudes and biases are inert until they are enacted through behavior. When we shift our emphasis to changing behavior, we also allow ourselves access to a variety of tools for changing behavior developed in domains such as environmental psychology, public health, and even marketing. In particular, focusing on behavior allows us to take a much wider view of what could motivate someone to be more inclusive aside from internal motivation to be non-prejudiced. In this way, focusing on changing behavior both seems to have the potential of generating more real-world impact of our diversity and inclusion efforts while in effect also providing more routes to achieving this change.

Implicit bias is an interesting concept that requires further research, but in my view it's time for diversity and inclusion efforts to leave this theory behind and shift focus to targeting intergroup behavior, which has the most proximal impact on people from marginalized backgrounds and has clearer routes to change.


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