By Dr. Ken Broda-Bahm:
Since 1998, more than 4.5 million people have discovered they have more of a racial bias than they thought they had. They did this by self-administering an online tool called the Implicit Association Test. Developed by researchers at Yale University and the University of Washington, the test looks at implicit bias, or the ways unconscious attitudes lead to unjustified assumptions and perceptions about individuals of other races. While explicit racial bias is generally seen as wrong, these implicit preferences, measured by reaction times when looking at faces, are more deeply rooted. In addition to bias based on race, the researchers have also applied the same tool to document implicit preferences based on gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, age, religion, disability, body weight, and other factors. Even without rising to the level of conscious awareness, these implicit biases still have the ability to Influence judgment and behavior in a variety of contexts, including determinations of criminal guilt and sentencing.
A recent article in Court Review (Elek & Hannaford-Agor, 2013) looks at the state of the research on implicit racial bias. Written by two researchers with the National Center for State Courts, the article reviews the state of the research and also surveys court efforts so far to address it. One wrinkle is that sensitizing individuals by raising awareness of the bias can help reduce it, or it can bring on a defensive backlash that actually increases the bias. That is obviously a concern in the context of racial bias in the criminal justice system. My focus in this blog post, however, will be to look at what this discussion has to say about not just racial bias, but about biases generally.