To Address Implicit Bias, Disrupt It

Last year, the Conference of Chief Justices and Conference of State Court Administrators issued a resolution to intensify efforts to combat racial prejudice in the justice system, both explicit and implicit.

While those exhibiting explicit bias are aware of their prejudices and attitudes toward a certain group, implicit biases are hidden. They are subconscious attitudes or beliefs people have about others based on past experiences or influences.

Implicit biases manifest themselves everywhere and can be more difficult to uncover and address. However, a recently released report from the National Center for State Courts (NCSC) says they may be lessened by teaching people how to override their automatic gut reactions.

“Embedded in the architecture of our daily lives, many of these associations can be, or have become, invisible to us,” Jennifer Elek and Andrea Miller, NCSC researchers, wrote in the report. “We may not endorse these associations, but they can nevertheless contaminate our choices and leak out through our behavior to impact others in ways that we do not intend.”

The report, titled “The Evolving Science of Implicit Bias: An Updated Resource for the State Court Community,” explores how implicit bias fits into broader conversations about equity and fairness and summarizes current psychological research around implicit bias, including effective and ineffective strategies. Additionally, the report defines key terminology originating from research into implicit bias and addresses implications for legal professionals.

Implicit Bias Interventions – What’s Working and What Isn’t

Based on their analysis of physiological research on bias interventions, the authors offered three key takeaways on addressing implicit bias that have practical implications for courts and their communities:

  1. General interventions that attempt to reduce prejudice and discrimination through positive, meaningful intergroup contact are some of the most effective strategies for courts.
    • Activities that include the following have the biggest impact: 1) different groups working toward a common goal, 2) the groups have equal status in the activity, 3) the activity allows individuals to get to know each other on an individual basis, and 4) the activity receives institutional support or support from the relevant authority figures.
  2. Implicit bias interventions that attempt to change implicit associations in memory are not consistently effective.
    • While some of these “change interventions” can reduce the strength of implicit associations, they are difficult to implement, don’t last long, and typically fail to change subsequent behavior.
  3. Implicit bias interventions that bypass or disrupt biased responding show more promise.
    • “Expression interventions,” which disrupt the expression of underlying implicit biases by teaching people how to override their automatic gut reactions and make decisions based on a more egalitarian response, show more promise than trying to retrain the brain.

Implicit bias research is continually developing, meaning there are still many unknowns. However, legal professionals across the board would be wise to make themselves aware of how their implicit biases may be impacting the advancement of a more equitable and effective justice system. As summarized by Elek and Miller, “Educate not just to raise awareness, but to build capacity for change.”

If you’d like to learn more about implicit bias, including strategies to counter it in your personal and professional life, take our free CLE, “Rebalance the Scales: Implicit Bias, Diversity, and the Legal Profession.”

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