The Unconscious Bias Awareness Fallacy

My D&I colleague, Carmen Morris, recently wrote an article, on LinkedIn, about her concern about Unconscious Bias (UB) awareness training. Also, I saw a post by James Elfer of MoreThanNow. Look them both up.

I decided to respond to some of the detractors in the comments with the following information and thought it might be useful to share in an article, as it exceeded the comments character limit by quite some way and required six separate replies!

It’s well documented that UB awareness training is a “sop to inclusion efforts” (this is a direct quote from a Head of D&I at a prominent organisation). It is clear that realising UB exists, how it manifests itself and the impact is important (think of the paper cuts analogy*), but expecting people to be aware of their unconscious and mitigate themselves, is not actually possible.

Take this recently updated academic paper which aggregates into one, 492 studies on the matter, with nearly 90-thousand participants. https://psyarxiv.com/dv8tu/

It concludes: We found that implicit measures can be changed, but effects are often relatively weak (|ds| < .30). Most studies focused on producing short-term changes with brief, single-session manipulations. Procedures that associate sets of concepts, invoke goals or motivations, or tax mental resources changed implicit measures the most, whereas procedures that induced threat, affirmation, or specific moods/emotions changed implicit measures the least. Bias tests suggested that implicit effects could be inflated relative to their true population values. Procedures changed explicit measures less consistently and to a smaller degree than implicit measures and generally produced trivial changes in behaviour. Finally, changes in implicit measures did not mediate changes in explicit measures or behaviour. Our findings suggest that changes in implicit measures are possible, but those changes do not necessarily translate into changes in explicit measures or behaviour.

So, even if weak changes in implicit bias occur, they do not mediate downstream changes in explicit bias or behaviour.

The recommendation from the author of the report: Do not try to change implicit bias… Instead focus on working around it. Target other inter group outcomes and teach folks to create procedural changes that prevent the influence of hidden biases.

Add to this, the work of Alexandra Kalev, Professor of Sociology and Anthropology at Tel Aviv University, to quote from the BBC website…

Alexandra Kalev … has done a lot of research into unconscious bias training and her findings are astonishing: it’s not just that bad training doesn’t work, but that it can be counterproductive, actually reducing the number of women or people of colour in management positions. She has found that efforts to get people to suppress their stereotypes can actually work to reinforce them. Often, any positive change is weak and short term.

“One theory is that if training tells us we’re all biased, we might no longer think we need to make an effort or that making an effort will make a difference. Afterwards, a participant might come away with a sense of relief: they’ve been shown that their bias isn’t really their fault at all. The eagerness to label all bias as unconscious could allow us to evade responsibility for the harm it causes.

And many businesses might see the training as a complete solution to their discrimination problems: a quick fix. But although unconscious bias training opens the door to fruitful conversations about bias, by itself it won’t make you or your company any less biased than you were before.”

A face-to-face UB course which I have also done, again, whilst good at helping people realise UB exists and how it manifests itself, it doesn’t focus enough about impact and still expects people to mitigate themselves, and makes no mention of the requirement of processes and structures to change in order to assist with mitigation.

This report by the EHRC also points to raising awareness being useful – as I say, helping people realise what UB is part of the knowledge piece to open the conversation – but evidence for behaviour change is weak. https://www.equalityhumanrights.com/sites/default/files/research-report-113-unconcious-bais-training-an-assessment-of-the-evidence-for-effectiveness-pdf.pdf (This is the correct report link despite bias being incorrectly spelled).

Daniel Kahneman, the “father of heuristics” says it’s extremely difficult to catch yourself doing something unconsciously. When asked why you made a decision you’ll convince yourself of a valid reason, when in reality your unconscious forced you to come to a conclusion based on your bias and short-cutting of information, a cerebral process of which you’re completely unaware. And yet the conscious decision-making process, which you do control, is “who you think you are”.

To conclude, the repeated suggestion in training we can by being aware we can mitigate our own unconscious bias is not correct. We must stop saying and teaching that. We need to put less store by the training and more by the overall structures and processes we need to create, implement and enforce to mitigate it. We must also put more effort into creating a culture of feedback where it’s ok to call it out other’s bias because a diversity of staff can see and feel it more clearly than we’d ever be able to in ourselves, and for the recipient of that feedback not to be defensive about it.

And, allow people who can see and feel them, to call out issues, and don’t then vilify them for it.

* Please listen to Rob Neil OBE on Binna Kandola’s excellent podcast series, Racism at Work: https://pearnkandola.com/racism-at-work/ He says he heard this and it made sense, that one paper cut may be relatively unharmful, you may forget it, it stings later, but repeated paper cuts take their toll, may become infected etc. And such is the impact of micro incivilities associated with UB.

Photos by rawpixel.com from Pexels.