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We Understand Implicit Bias, Now What? A Conversation With Stanford Psychologist Jennifer Eberhardt09:51
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Demonstrators in Boston, Massachusetts, protest in response to the death of George Floyd. (Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
Demonstrators in Boston, Massachusetts, protest in response to the death of George Floyd. (Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed an executive order this month requiring health care workers in the state to undergo implicit bias training to obtain or renew their medical licenses.

Over the years, we've been learning how implicit bias — one's unconscious attitudes or beliefs about a group of people — targets Black people at all levels of society from health care to schools and policing. Regardless of race, everyone carries societal biases.

Stanford University psychologist Jennifer Eberhardt has done a multi-year exploration of policing in America. Her research found the association between Black Americans and crime is so powerful that just thinking about violent crime can lead people to focus their attention on Black faces.

When folks repeatedly hear about the disparity of more Black people being targeted by police, they believe that Black people are doing something to become the focus of law enforcement. But addressing bias requires evaluating data into the context of inequality.

“When police departments collect data on stops and searches and arrests and so forth and you run the numbers,” she says, “what we find is, over and above the crime rate, that you still have this disparity or you still have this overrepresentation of Black people in terms of their stops and searches and so forth.”

Many people don’t understand that systemic bias can feed into personal bias, she says. This explains why screening out bias people during hiring processes doesn’t work as effectively as some might expect.

To change our biases, we need to alter the environment that produced them, Eberhardt says.

Individuals within organizations can look at the undesirable outcomes that result from bias — whether it’s racial disparities in hiring, promotions or C-suites — and find ways to address it. Changing certain aspects of the work environment can alter the mindsets of the people in it, she says, and lessen the probability that bias will influence their future decisions.

“Despite our goals and desires, the systems that we work in can begin to change who we are and how we behave,” she says. “And so it takes real vigilance, it takes real effort to prevent that from happening.”

Interview Highlights

On seeing her son’s implicit biases on an airplane

“When my son was just 5 years old, we were on an airplane together. He was excited about being on the plane. And he's looking around and checking people out, checking everything out. And he sees a man and he says, ‘Hey, you know, that man looks like daddy.’ And I look at the man and I realize he was the only Black man on the plane. And so I'm all set to have a talk with my son about how not all Black people look alike. But before I could, my son looks at me and he says, you know, 'I hope that man doesn't rob the plane.' And so I was just shocked at this. He's 5 years old and already he has, you know, absorbed this association between Blackness and criminality.”

On whether people’s biases come from their environment

“Yes. Yes, they can. So let me give you an example. I met an officer once in a police department in a large urban area, and he had moved to the U.S. from Germany. Now, this officer had not thought much about race before he got here. But just after a few years of being a cop, this had altered his way of thinking. And when he was on patrol, Black men would draw his attention. He would look for their hands and he would look at how they move their bodies. And he was ready to see threats even when none existed. So this is an example of how easily biases can form from the environment. So if we want to change our biases, we have to work to change the environment that is producing it.”

On using machine learning techniques to analyze police encounters

“In Oakland, California, we have begun to look at body-worn camera footage and we started with traffic stops. So we took nearly a thousand traffic stops, and we were interested in looking at how officers spoke to Black versus white drivers during those stops. And we found that even when officers were behaving professionally, they spoke to Black drivers with less respect than white drivers.”

On sharing the data with law enforcement

“In Oakland, when we shared this data, they invited us to help them to develop a training module around the traffic stop, where we gave them the takeaways of our study and what we're doing now is looking at footage of officers before that training and after that training to see if the training actually made a difference to real interactions on the street.”

On the pushback that there's not much scientific evidence that shows implicit bias training works

“Well, I agree with that. I think that when departments decide that they are going to offer these trainings that we should evaluate them. And for the most part, they are not being evaluated. So we need a lot more information about this, especially when it comes to these implicit bias trainings.”

On the value of slowing down, a process she calls using “friction” to combat bias

“Bias actually is more likely to get triggered in situations where we have to think quickly. In Oakland, in California, the police department changed the foot pursuit policy. It used to be the case that officers could chase a suspect on foot wherever that suspect went. And so if they lost sight of them, they could keep pursuing them. But then the department changed the foot pursuit policy so that if the officer lost sight of a suspect, they could not continue to follow them. They had to step back and set up a perimeter. If we shift a policy, there is a way in which we can decrease bias and have better outcomes.”

On how individuals within organizations can take on the system

“They can look at the outcomes that are not desirable. So to the extent that they see racial disparities in hiring or promotions or in the C-suite or wherever it is that they can examine when those disparities come up and how and sort of what are some approaches they could use to address it.”


Marcelle Hutchins produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Peter O'DowdAllison Hagan adapted it for the web.

This segment aired on July 14, 2020.

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