Unconscious bias training does more harm than good

Closeup Photo of Primate by Andre Mouton

Unconscious biases are on the rise! There is now a great deal of publications on the subject, both on blogs and social networks. At the same time, a lot of trainings have emerged that promise to reduce our biases. They are intended to promote inclusion and commitment or improve recruitment techniques. However, there is evidence that these trainings are ineffective and even do more harm than good.

What are we talking about?

Unconscious bias trainings are about raising awareness of the fact that we are all biased. Indeed, biases are deeply rooted in our mental functioning. They influence our behaviour without us being aware of it.

The general idea is to make people aware of their biases, sometimes through the use of exercises or tests. Once this has been done, these people should be able to counterbalance their biases.

But things are not that simple.

An irrelevant approach

Even if our society today is generally imbued with an egalitarian and anti-racist ideal, discrimination persists, but in subtler forms. Two main types of discrimination can be considered.

The first is related to ‘modern racism’ [1] or ‘colourblind racism’ [2]. It concerns people who systematically refuse to support, or even undermine, pro-diversity policies. For example: considering that equality has been achieved and that there is no need to do more, which is very rarely the case today. Another example: to consider all people as equivalent and only be interested in their achievements (=colourblind), when our unequal society does not give the same opportunities to everyone.

The second type is ‘aversive racism’ [3]. It is carried by people who are convinced that they egalitarian, but who are not actually. They express their discrimination in specific situations, especially when norms are ambiguous or when it is possible to rationalise the discrimination [4].

Of these two groups of people, the first will not be affected by the anti-bias training. This group is fully aware of its position and will not be shocked by becoming aware of its biases.

To tell the truth, it is not really the target of these training courses, which are more aimed at the second group. However, even for this one, “becoming aware” does not necessarily mean “changing behaviour” [5]. Moreover, although these trainings point to the problem, they rarely offer a real solution. This conducts to discomfort (“I have a problem that I cannot solve”) [6] which may lead people to avoid members of minorities [7], which is ultimately counterproductive.

Even leaving these considerations aside, unconscious bias training seems to have little effectiveness and sometimes even create a backlash effect.

Negative results and backlash

An American research team studied different approaches to improve diversity. Unconscious bias training was the least effective method [8]. Moreover, these effects (when they exist) are not sustainable, according to a meta-analysis from 2016 [9].

At worst, other studies show that such training can reinforce discriminatory attitudes [10]. This has also been shown for stereotypes: by making stereotypes “conscious”, they are also made more accessible [11], which helps them to flourish.

The problem goes even further. By focusing on individual biases, we are neglecting a whole part of the phenomenon of discrimination, the consequences of which are at least as dramatic.

An individual response to a global problem

Socio-cognitive biases explain many human behaviours, but discrimination goes far beyond this. When a white American policeman kills Georges Floyd, it is not just the consequence of his cognitive biases!

Discrimination is a more global problem. It is rooted in the functioning of our societies (unequal laws, stereotypes conveyed by movies, etc.) and of our companies (unequal pay, lack of adaptation to the needs of minorities, etc.). It is not only the result of biased individuals, but of a whole system. Individuals are only a part of it [5].

The rhetoric of unconscious bias distracts our attention from the real problem. It prompts us to give an individual explanation for a problem that is actually systemic. Yet, if we are serious about combating discrimination and promoting inclusion, we need a global response and we need to seek global change.

This conception also neglects the role of context, which has a strong impact on our behaviour. For example, working in a sexist environment will encourage us to be sexist as well, out of conformism; the same goes for an egalitarian environment. We are not isolated individuals. We exist in a social context that influences us greatly, for better or worse.

Finally, this approach contributes to taking our responsibility off our shoulders. “It’s not me, it’s my biases”. It puts the blame on unconscious and uncontrollable processes. However, the fault lies with our resistance and laziness to change. It is indeed attributable to an inequitable system that persists.

Conclusion

Unconscious bias trainings abound, but they are a problem. They are not adapted to a real fight against discrimination. Theirs effects are, at best, marginal and ephemeral and, at worst, counter-productive.

But their main limitation is certainly that they bias our image of what discrimination is. They focus on individual processes, whereas the problem is systemic. Discrimination is a global, societal, organisational phenomenon, not just an individual one.

This vision also relieves companies who are making a positive impression by investing in these short and easy to implement training courses, when more profound changes would be needed. All this contributes to an inertia that prevents us from moving in a better direction.

Sources

1. McConahay, J. B. (1986). Modern racism, ambivalence, and the modern racism scale.

2. Bonilla-Silva, E. (2002). The linguistics of color blind racism: How to talk nasty about blacks without sounding “racist”. Critical Sociology, 28(1–2), 41–64.

3. Dovidio, J. F., Gaertner, S. L., Smith, E. R., Semin, G. R., Leung, K., Bond, M. H., … & Valentine, J. C. (2004). Aversive Racism. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 36, 1–438.

4. Dovidio JF, Gaertner SL (2000) Aversive racism and selection decisions. Psychological Science 11(4): 319–323.

5. Noon, M. (2018). Pointless Diversity Training: Unconscious Bias, New Racism and Agency. Work, Employment and Society, 32(1), 198–209. doi: 10.1177/0950017017719841

6. Maloney, E. K., Lapinski, M. K., & Witte, K. (2011). Fear appeals and persuasion: A review and update of the extended parallel process model. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 5(4), 206–219.

7. Dovidio, J. F., & Gaertner, S. L. (1986). Prejudice, discrimination, and racism. Academic Press.

8. Kalev A, Dobbin F and Kelly E (2006) Best practices or best guesses? Assessing the efficacy of corporate affirmative action and diversity policies. American Sociological Review 71(4): 589–617

9. Bezrukova, K., Spell, C. S., Perry, J. L., & Jehn, K. A. (2016). A meta-analytical integration of over 40 years of research on diversity training evaluation. Psychological Bulletin, 142(11), 1227.

10. Kalev, A., Dobbin, F., & Kelly, E. (2006). Best practices or best guesses? Assessing the efficacy of corporate affirmative action and diversity policies. American sociological review, 71(4), 589–617.

11. Galinsky, A. D., & Moskowitz, G. B. (2000). Perspective-taking: decreasing stereotype expression, stereotype accessibility, and in-group favoritism. Journal of personality and social psychology, 78(4), 708.

Cover : Andre Mouton

French PhD in social psychology ● Writing about inclusion, diversity and discriminations, in the light of social sciences.

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