Oregon State Bar Bulletin — NOVEMBER 2010
Culture of Awareness
Prejudice May Exist Even When People Aren't Aware of Their Biases
By Melody Finnemore

How we react to people of different ethnicities is hardwired in our brains and can generate biased responses that we’re not even aware of, according to scientists who have studied a phenomenon called “unconscious bias.”

Also called “implicit bias,” it’s a physiological response in which people can consciously believe in racial equality while also acting on subconscious prejudices. University of Washington and Harvard University psychology professors Anthony Greenwald and Mahzarin Banaji in 1995 developed the theory that much of human social behavior is driven by learned stereotypes that operate automatically when we interact with other people, according to information from Americans for American Values.

The response is so innate, in fact, that magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) shows that when people react during episodes of unconscious bias, the portion of their brain associated with fear lights up.

In 1998, Greenwald’s research team developed the Implicit Association Test (IAT) to measure unconscious bias. So far, more than seven million people have taken the test online through http://projectimplicit.net, a joint research effort of Harvard University, the University of Washington and the University of Virginia. (To learn more about the test, visit https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/.)

The results show that most people are likely to show preference toward a dominant group — whites over blacks, young over old, straight over gay — and to associate time-worn stereotypes with groups, such as men with work/women with family and whites with America/Asians with foreign.

People also tend to prefer members of their own social or racial group to those outside it. Studies have shown that http://www.springerlink.com/content/dh6mg272g8654318/ are less likely to prescribe life-saving care to blacks, managers are less likely to call back or hire members of a different ethnic group, and https://www.amstat.org/chapters/boston/nessis07/presentation_material/Justin_Wolfers.pdf are more likely to favor players of the same race, according to AAV.

Kimberly Papillon, an attorney who specializes in unconscious bias and its impact on the legal system, says Project Implicit results have shown that U.S. judges rank within 1 percent of the general public in bias against African-Americans.

“That’s a problem and at the same time it’s an opportunity,” says Papillon, senior education specialist for the California Judicial Council and lead staff to the statewide combined Judicial Ethics and Fairness Education Committee, which develops the Mandatory Qualifying Ethics course for judges.

“Implicit association tells us that we have something to override,” she notes. “One thing the scientists tell us repeatedly is that there is no awareness cure. There’s no such thing as, ‘I’m going to try harder not to be biased.’ “We can override on some occasions, on many occasions, but eventually we become tired or busy and our brain defaults to our implicit associations.”

Papillon’s work explores not only how unconscious bias affects judges’ decisions, but also its impact on how district attorneys decide whether to press charges against someone, how public defenders determine whether to push for plea agreements for particular clients, and how jury members will react to certain defendants.

Despite its physiological roots, social scientists are striving to develop ways people can override unconscious bias more consistently. They have found that, among other things, exposure to diversity in social environments such as workplaces and schools can help lower unconscious bias, according to AAV.

Melody Finnemore is a Portland-area freelance writer and a frequent contributor to the Bulletin. 

© 2010 Melody Finnemore

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