Inside Perspective: Implicit bias

Dan Harper is vice president, corporate counsel and secretary for Océ North America, Inc., a Canon Group Co.  He is also immediate past president of the Chicago Chapter of the Association of Corporate Counsel. The views expressed herein are the opinions of the author and do not reflect the position or viewpoint of Océ North America Inc., Canon Inc. or any of the Océ or Canon companies.

Implicit Bias (also known as “Unconscious Bias” or “Hidden Bias”) has been described as negative associations that ordinary people are found to harbor in relation to various social groups – even while honestly reporting that they regard themselves as lacking these biases.   Stated another way – it is believing that one is impartial, but behaving as if one is not.

The information presented by those who advance the notion that implicit bias is real and present in our everyday lives suggests that an open mind and serious self examination is required in order for each of us to test our self awareness and assess our own implicit biases.  At the end of this column, you will have the opportunity to do just that by linking to a fascinating study being conducted by researchers at Harvard University.   If you take this short test, you will receive feedback informing you where you may harbor subconscious bias toward certain social groups.  I guarantee that you will be surprised at the delta between your conscious thinking and the way your brain actually responds to the test stimuli.

Implicit bias studies have shown that doctors are more likely to prescribe life-saving care to whites; that managers are more likely to hire and promote members of their own in-group; police are more likely to shoot a black man carrying a cell phone than a white man; and that referees in basketball are more likely to favor players with whom they share a racial identity.  If doctors, business people, police men and women, and presumably objective professional referees are subject to unconscious biases, it would seem unrealistic to believe that lawyers are immune.  The good news is that implicit bias can be overcome through awareness, acknowledgement and conscious effort.

Understanding implicit bias is important to lawyers because, once understood, it becomes an important tool for the way  we approach our day-to-day jobs.  The Harvard study shows that Implicit Biases vary from person to person and that implicit attitudes are modified by experience.  Once we understand that we may have a bias for a particular group or groups over another, we can attempt to manage it, check it at the door, when making decisions or giving advice that pertains to or affects that group or a person with that group, for example, providing HR counsel on a RIF or assessing the credibility of an accused manager during an investigation.  We can also use it to aid us in moving to a certain result, for example, in picking a jury that will be biased in favor of our client.

ALFA International, a global network of independent business focused law firms, together with ACC Chicago, sponsored an ethics seminar on implicit bias last week.  Because this is an intriguing topic, new to many lawyers, there was a full house.  People walked away talking about what they had just learned.

The featured speaker was U.S District Court Judge Mark Bennett, who has made the study of Implicit Bias the keystone of his unique approach to jury instructions.  He is the first judge in the country to instruct all of his juries on the role of implicit bias in decision making; the state of California just last week approved the use of his pattern jury instruction on implicit bias for use in California criminal trials.

Whether or not you accept the concept of implicit bias, one thing is for certain – the study of implicit bias is not pseudo-science or the advancement of the latest wacky social theory.  This is real grist for the mind’s mill and hundreds of social science studies are conducted on this topic each year.

Here is the link to the Project Implicit test site: https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/ .  I invite you to test your  self-awareness of bias against the actual bias shown by your behavior.  While not perfect or absolute, the test results should move one to serious self-reflection and to be open to the possibility that one’s thinking is not as objective as one might hope or believe.  I would love to see your comments posted after you have taken the test.

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