We’re All a Little Biased, Even if We Don’t Know It – The New York Times

Thanks to the VP debate, implicit bias has become the new political correctness term for the right. Good piece explaining what it is and is not.

As I have argued before, confronting implicit bias means becoming more mindful and aware, rather than just using automatic thinking:

“Senator, please,” Mr. Pence said, addressing his Democratic opponent, Tim Kaine, “enough of this seeking every opportunity to demean law enforcement broadly by making the accusation of implicit bias every time tragedy occurs.”

The concept, in his words, came across as an insult, a put-down on par with branding police as racists. Many Americans may hear it as academic code for “racist.” But that connotation does not line up with scientific research on what implicit bias is and how it really operates.

Researchers in this growing field say it isn’t just white police officers, but all of us, who have biases that are subconscious, hidden even to ourselves.

Implicit bias is the mind’s way of making uncontrolled and automatic associations between two concepts very quickly. In many forms, implicit bias is a healthy human adaptation — it’s among the mental tools that help you mindlessly navigate your commute each morning. It crops up in contexts far beyond policing and race (if you make the rote assumption that fruit stands have fresher produce, that’s implicit bias). But the same process can also take the form of unconsciously associating certain identities, like African-American, with undesirable attributes, like violence.

The science of how this submerged bias affects your actions is still a work in progress; studies have found a link between the biases and specific actions in some situations but not others. But because this bias is a function of universal human psychology, researchers say, we all experience it — and you can’t exactly get “rid” of it.

Well-intentioned people may also hold implicit biases that run counter to their stated values. That’s why it’s hard to square Mr. Pence’s description with the science. To broach implicit bias isn’t to impugn someone’s values; it’s to recognize that our values compete on an unconscious level with all the stereotypes we absorb from the world around us. And even black police officers aren’t immune to internalizing them.

“These types of cultural biases are like smog in the air,” Jennifer Richeson, a Yale psychologist, wrote in an email, citing an analogy often used by a former president of Spelman College, Beverly Daniel Tatum. “To live and grow up in our culture, then, is to ‘take in’ these cultural messages and biases and do so largely unconsciously.”

In the context of race, implicit bias is considered a particularly important idea because it acknowledges forces beyond bigotry that perpetuate inequality. If we talk less about it, as Mr. Pence suggested — this “really has got to stop,” he said Tuesday night — we lose vocabulary that allows us to confront racial disparities without focusing on the character of individual people.

“You’re removing the language that allows you talk about the mechanism of inequality,” said Phillip Atiba Goff, the president of the Center for Policing Equity at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and a professor there. “If you take away that language, what that means is inequality gets stronger and justice gets weaker. It really gets that serious.”

Mr. Goff said he hears objections similar to Mr. Pence’s every time he gives presentations or leads training sessions with police departments. “Someone will say, ‘I’m tired of being called a racist,’ ” he said. To which he explains that racism and implicit bias aren’t interchangeable.

“That wrong formulation is so ingrained,” Mr. Goff said. “That’s what’s dangerous. It’s so easy to call it a slight, and if that metastasizes in our political discourse, we really have lost out on an incredible opportunity to take great strides forward.”

He fears that implicit bias could become a political trope, dismissed as an insult and not as science, or worse, tugged into the realm of political correctness. He acknowledges that the left mistreats the topic, too, citing implicit bias as a catchall to explain all the forces of racial unfairness in society that aren’t bigotry.

In fact, implicit bias is just one of many psychological processes that shape how we interact with one another. We also tend to be better at remembering the faces of people in our own racial group, or to subconsciously favor people in our group. The fear of being stereotyped psychologically weighs on people, too. In police training, Mr. Goff has watched officers using other kinds of mental shortcuts in which they assume “active shooters” must be men. He now talks more broadly about “identity traps” that encompass implicit biases and much more.

The challenge, he argues, isn’t to eliminate biases, but to try to interrupt them so we can act more often in ways that line up with our values. Researchers, though, still have a lot to learn about how to do that. And it would be unfortunate, Mr. Goff argued, if implicit bias became politically unmentionable right at the moment when science was trying to uncover the answer.

For now, laboratory simulations don’t easily translate to the real world, and it’s hard to convert beliefs into behaviors. It’s unclear how well nascent police training programs work. And police officers are not the only ones facing implicit-bias training — this fall, the home-sharing company Airbnb announced it planned to offer such a program to its hosts. It’s not clear that will work, either.

Tony Greenwald, a professor of psychology at the University of Washington, said training can even backfire, as a result of another tendency we have: People who attend programs like these may falsely believe they’ve rooted out their biases and so don’t need to worry about them any more.

“Just wanting to eliminate implicit bias is not sufficient,” Mr. Greenwald said. “You can’t unlearn implicit biases. We live in a society and culture where the influences that create these are so strong and pervasive, that we’re not going to get rid of those influences in any short period.”

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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