Six Strategies to Ensure Implicit Bias Isn't Impacting Your Outcomes

Brenidy Rice, Court Programs Analyst, Colorado Judicial Branch

Imagine this: you are late for a really important meeting.  You are approaching a red light.  There are three cars in each of the three lanes ahead of you:  a minivan, a red corvette and a 1979 Volkswagen bus.  Which lane do you choose?  The red corvette, right?  Surely, they will go fast.  Now imagine you are waiting for your 17 year olds daughter’s date to come and pick her up.  Of the three cars mentioned, which one would you prefer pull up in your driveway?  We can cross off the corvette, I mean, what teenager drives a corvette and if they do, I am even more worried.  But the minivan and bus?  Way too much room inside those vehicles.  You might ask if there is another option at this point, maybe a bicycle? 

You might also be asking yourself, how are these scenarios related to implicit bias?  Well, in both scenarios we take in the available information: we are late, the red light, the different types of cars.  Then we make assumptions about the behavior of the drivers based on this information.  Our brains are actually working at lightning speed taking in information and then sending transmitters to tell us how to respond.  It is efficient, it is human and it can be problematic.  This is the foundation for how implicit bias works.   

Implicit bias is really the most human expression of how our brains work.  We are wired to quickly and unconsciously assess situations and respond all the while our conscious brain is taking the scenic route.  Neuroscience, the study of the way our brains work, coupled with cultural and societal norms equals: we have bias.  This means a bias against people not like ourselves and, often times this means minorities and in particular black men.  The Kirwan Institute defines implicit bias as the attitudes or stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions, and decisions in an unconscious manner[1].  We know through brain scans that implicit bias shows up in our amygdala, our fear center that is responsible for our flight or fight response.  When our amygdala is triggered in situations that aren’t actually life threatening we encounter the issue of implicit bias impacting how we behave unconsciously in our day to day decisions[2].     

So what do we do about it? Many of us working in the courts, child support offices and other human service agencies don’t have the luxury of choosing our clients.  They have a problem, they show up, they need help.  Additionally, many of us working in the courts have a duty to be neutral even when our brains are working against us.  Even if we don’t have a professional obligation of neutrality we still have to serve our clients to the best of our ability, and according to the laws and policies that are in place. 

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While the research supporting implicit bias is over 20 years old, what we do about it is a little less clear.  Here is what we do know: topping the list is awareness.  A simple awareness of the existence of implicit bias can reduce its impact on our day to day decisions.  The second: ongoing training.  Training on implicit bias and cultural competency helps us understand how our brains work and also understand cultural differences and even bring to light our own biases (and this doesn’t have to be painful!).  Third: especially because our lives demand we multitask and work quickly, implicit bias is less likely to come into our decision-making process if we take time.  That’s right, we have to take time to make decisions.  Think through potential options, pros, and cons and then be able to articulate why we made a particular decision.  Fourth: this is the one I call “make new friends and keep the old”.  Research has shown that by expanding our personal and professional networks, getting to know people different from ourselves, we are less likely to rely on implicit bias.  Fifth:  We can borrow from the medical field by using a practice called the “post-mortem”.  We aren’t necessarily dealing with life and death in a literal sense but we can use the practice of walking through a case or situation, decision by decision, with trusted colleagues, to learn from and evaluate each decision made and the outcome.  This has the added benefit of taking a bird’s eye view of each discreet decision and their culminating effects.  Now for the sixth strategy:  Data.  While data may be more difficult for some to access than others, an analysis of demographic data at different decision-making points can help narrow in on potential issues and inform policy or practice changes.  This specific strategy is called a drop off analysis.  Below is an example from child welfare of the different points at which to look at the data.

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Implicit Bias is a fact of life, and indeed is how our brains are wired. We can’t take away our years of experience and observation, and in many instances it is this implicit bias that allows us to make quick decisions and to get behind the car at the light that gets us to work on time. However, as we make use of the six strategies and expand our experiences and sharpen our observations, we can lessen the impact of this kind of bias on the lives of the people we serve. 

[1] www.kirwaninstitute.osu.edu

[2] The Harvard Implicit Association test is a great way to see how your own implicit biases may be showing up and can be found at https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/takeatest.html