Unconscious bias under scrutiny

Over the course of the last decade, the concepts of ‘unconscious’ or ‘implicit’ bias have become an increasingly ubiquitous feature of organisational practices and culture throughout the UK.

Across public and private institutions, an expanding array of training sessions and resources badged as Unconscious Bias Training (UBT) have been rolled out as a means of addressing issues of diversity, equality and inclusion.

Emerging out of the field of psychology in the United States in the 1990s, these strategies and practices are based on the view that individuals, informed by their own experiences and wider cultural contexts, hold attitudes and prejudices that are not consciously considered, Instead, they lead them to favour particular individuals and groups over others, and to pursue courses of action which can work to disadvantage marginalised groups.

This is seen to impact on decisions around hiring, retention and promotion, and in the treatment and evaluation of users of services. Interventions are, therefore, targeted at making individuals aware of these biases in the hope that a greater awareness will challenge and mitigate the effects such biases exert on their judgements and behaviours. The belief is that this will then prompt a wider shift in institutional practices which, over time, will produce more equitable and inclusive procedures and outcomes.

The targeting of ‘bias’ has become the central feature of organisational strategies to combat inequalities related to race and ethnicity. As Jenny Bourne of the Institute of Race Relations has recently argued, the rising emphasis on unconscious bias has accompanied a retreat from applying the concept of institutional racism.

Bourne points to the 2017 Lammy Review into racial and ethnic inequalities within the criminal justice system and its shift in emphasis from institutions to individuals. While the 1999 Macpherson Report cited institutional racism as a key driver of racial and ethnic disparities, more recent analysis focused instead on the need to address bias and individual decision-making within such systems.

Individual bias then becomes the principle way of explaining disproportionality, with little reference to the role of the media, the institutional logic of policing and wider state practices and legislation. That same year, the McGregor-Smith Review into racial inequalities in the workplace also advocated for the government to create a free, universally accessible online unconscious bias training resource as a means of transforming disadvantage.

More recently, the 2018 Final Report of the Independent Review of the Mental Health Act makes a number of references to the issue of ‘bias’. It explains, for instance, that racial and ethnic disparities in detention ‘might be unduly influenced by unintended bias’. The report does acknowledge, ‘the painful reality of the impact of that combination of unconscious bias, structural and institutional racism’. However, prominent within the policy recommendations is a call to action in ‘Addressing endemic structural factors through the piloting and evaluation of behavioural interventions to combat implicit bias in decision-making.’

Clearly issues of bias and negative attitudes and stereotypes held towards particular social groups exist, and do play a role in shaping decision-making processes and forms of interaction that occur within institutional settings. But to frame these biases as the sole, or even the most prominent, driver of racial and ethnic inequalities is highly problematic on a number of levels.

Firstly, as Bourne has argued, it tends to reframe racism and the inequalities it creates as a result of individual, psychological and subconscious thoughts and attitudes, rather than as the product of dynamic and interrelated social, political and institutional processes.  She states that this marks a move towards the ‘biologicalization’ of racism, resituating it as a private and individual issue (perhaps resulting from innate psychological processes), rather than a social and collective problem.

This also raises questions of accountability, as the focus on implicit or unconscious bias, ‘effectively exonerates governments, institutions, organisations, even individuals’. Here inequalities are presenting as stemming from the actions or inactions of individuals who often act unknowingly.

All of which is problematic, for a number of reasons. It denies the possibility that forms of exclusion and inequality may result from more overt and knowing forms of exclusion and discrimination. It also tends to leave untouched the processes by which particular individuals and groups assume positions of power within institutions in the first place. For instance, while it seeks to change or challenge the prejudices of power brokers and decision-makers in situ, it does less to address the structures of organisations.

The focus on changing individual attitudes within institutions loses sight of the wider contexts in which bias forms. Institutions – and the individuals that comprise them – don’t exist in isolation but within a wider socio-political field where ideas of racial and ethnic difference, and the realities of inequality, are develop and sustained.

A second concern relates to the assumption that becoming aware of unconscious or implicit bias begins a move to more equitable practices. There are parallels here with Racial Awareness Training, which was popularised by a number of local authorities during the 1980s as a way of redressing racism.

Sara Ahmed has commented that recognition of the inequities that operate within society and its institutions does not, in and of itself, mark a move to challenge them. In fact, such policies and initiatives become the central component of audit processes within institutions. The existence of such training rather than the effects it has become de facto indicators of success in combating racism to the neglect of more thoroughgoing actions.

In this context, unconscious bias training can represent a palliative means of dealing with what is a more profound and pervasive set of issues. Similarly, an awareness of prejudices and a sense of privilege, can lead to a desire to defend such dispositions. Indeed, emerging research has questioned the effectiveness of such interventions.

A 2018 report by the Equality and Human Rights Commission suggests that while such strategies can increase awareness, there is limited evidence to indicate that they produce changes in behaviour. Instead the focus is less on altering or changing bias than on merely rendering it (temporarily) visible. The report also argues that much of the focus in this area has been on those in positions of power, to the neglect of the experiences of those subjected to the forms of discrimination that such biases produce.

As racial and ethnic inequalities persist across a range of institutions – criminal justice, mental health, employment – questions remain about the ability of unconscious or implicit bias training to address them. The tendency to focus on the individual and the unconscious, risks limit attempts to address inequalities, which prevent more rigorous, more complex and more comprehensive strategies being introduced and implemented.

Dr James Rhodes