Research finds implicit bias training is ineffective

The Columbia Missourian recently reported that the University of Missouri has required all members of faculty search committees to undergo unconscious bias training, but a groundbreaking new study shows that implicit biases have very little to do with how people actually act.

The report, authored by researchers at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, Harvard, and the University of Virginia, looked at 499 studies on the topic conducted over a 20-year period with 80,859 participants, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Tom Bartlett, a senior writer at The Chronicle who did the heavy lifting of summarizing the report, notes that all 499 studies surveyed used some variation of the Implicit Association Test (IAT), which has been popularly cited as proof that nearly 70 percent of the population has some level of unconscious racial biases.

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While the raw findings of the IAT are difficult to contest, the new report, called “A Meta-Analysis of Change in Implicit Bias,” demonstrates that the findings have little to no correlation with how people actually behave.

“They discovered two things: One is that the correlation between implicit bias and discriminatory behavior appears weaker than previously thought,” Bartlett summarizes. “They also conclude that there is very little evidence that changes in implicit bias have anything to do with changes in a person’s behavior.”

In other words, the report argues that since implicit biases do not correlate with outward behavior, attempts to change implicit or unconscious biases will not correlate with changes in behavior.

Indeed, the report notes that while other studies have argued that “changing automatic processes should lead to a change in behaviors in these conditions,” its “findings stand in stark contrast to these predictions.”

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Nonetheless, several prestigious universities continue to require trainings on implicit bias for one reason or another, most recently at Mizzou, where all members of search committees for department or executive positions are mandated to complete an “unconscious bias training module.”

While the embattled institution has several top administrative positions to fill, with The Missourian noting that five of 13 dean posts are currently filled by interims and another five positions in the chancellor’s office either vacant or filled by interims, the aforementioned study suggests that forced trainings will either not produce their intended effects, or may have nothing to do with their intended effects in the first place.

But the brains behind Mizzou’s bias training module continue to defend it as “entirely research based.”

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“What I love about the training is it is entirely research-based,” asserted Mizzou Provost Garnett Stokes. “It is built on what we know to be best practices in doing the most unbiased searches possible.”

Still other schools, like the University of Wisconsin, Madison, have been awarded large sums of money to train their faculty on implicit bias. In fact, UW, Madison was granted upwards of $700,000 from the federal government to fund an “unconscious bias” training for its professors.

UW-Madison, like Mizzou, defended the training as supported by research, telling Campus Reform that the training is “based on research that suggests all of us have implicit biases that can affect the way we treat others.”

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @AGockowski