Implicit Bias

Implicit bias describes the automatic association people make between groups of people and stereotypes about those groups.

Implicit bias describes the automatic association people make between groups of people and stereotypes about those groups. Under certain conditions, those automatic associations can influence behavior—making people respond in biased ways even when they are not explicitly prejudiced. More than thirty years of research in neurology and social and cognitive psychology has shown that people hold implicit biases even in the absence of heartfelt bigotry, simply by paying attention to the social world around them. Implicit racial bias has given rise to a phenomenon known as “racism without racists,” which can cause institutions or individuals to act on racial prejudices, even in spite of good intentions and nondiscriminatory policies or standards.

In the context of criminal justice and community safety, implicit bias has been shown to have significant influence in the outcomes of interactions between police and citizens. While conscious, “traditional” racism has declined significantly in recent decades, research suggests that “implicit attitudes may be better at predicting and/or influencing behavior than self-reported explicit attitudes.”

Discussions of implicit bias in policing tend to focus on implicit racial biases; however, implicit bias can be expressed in relation to non-racial factors, including gender, age, religion, or sexual orientation. As with all types of bias, implicit bias can distort one’s perception and subsequent treatment either in favor of or against a given person or group. In policing, this has resulted in widespread practices that focus undeserved suspicion on some groups and presume other groups innocent.

Reducing the influence of implicit bias is vitally important to strengthening relationships between police and minority communities. For example, studies suggest that implicit bias contributes to “shooter bias,”—the tendency for police to shoot unarmed black suspects more often than white ones—as well as the frequency of police stops for members of minority groups. Other expressions of implicit bias, such as public defenders’ prioritization of cases involving white defendants, can have major impact on communities. This latter point is particularly significant in light of recent findings about the importance of procedural justice in fostering cooperation between citizens and the criminal justice system and cultivating law-abiding communities.

Despite these challenges, the work of Phillip Atiba Goff, President of the Center for Policing Equity, has shown that it is possible to address and reduce implicit bias through training and policy interventions with law enforcement agencies. Research suggests that biased associations can be gradually unlearned and replaced with nonbiased ones. Perhaps even more encouragingly, one can reduce the influence of implicit bias simply by changing the context in which an interaction takes place. Consequently, through policy and training, it is possible to mend the harm that racial stereotypes do to our minds and our public safety.


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