Does Implicit-Bias Training Fall Short?

Author: Casey Gale       

implicit bias

Professor Neil Lewis (center) speaks about implicit bias at at the Society for Personality and Social Psychology 2019 annual convention in Portland, Oregon. (Photo courtesy Dr. Allison Earl)

Implicit-bias training has become a popular method toward the goal of creating a more inclusive workplace. But according to Neil Lewis, professor of communication and social behavior at Cornell University, such training — which typically takes place over an afternoon — lacks the ability to change long-term thoughts and behaviors in a way that can meaningfully transform a company culture.

In his talk at the Society for Personality and Social Psychology’s annual convention — an international event held Feb. 7-9, 2019, in Portland, Oregon, for more than 4,400 social and personality psychologist attendees — Lewis cited two effective alternatives to implicit-bias training. Quartz at Work author Olivia Goldhill shared his recommendations:

Start with influencers

Lewis said that people change their behavior to fit in with social norms, even if they inherently disagree with the new norm. Influential individuals in networks have a lot of control “over the norms in those networks,” Lewis said. “If influential individuals speak up and express egalitarian, anti-prejudice views, it’s possible for their voice to begin shifting norms within their organizations.”

Adjust policies and social structures

According to Goldhill, Lewis referred to research in his talk that shows that when all students are screened to enter gifted education programs, more racial minorities and low-income students are accepted into the programs than when students are only referred by their teachers — research also has shown that teachers, on average, consider children of color “less intellectual” than white students. Lewis suggested that instead of trying to change that implicit bias, considering how bias might appear and “developing policies to eliminate the impact of such biases,” Goldhill wrote, might be more effective.

Those workplace policies will vary depending on the organization. “This is actually part of my problem with implicit-bias training being the go-to tool for all diversity problems,” Lewis wrote in speech notes that he shared with Quartz at Work. “If the problem with a company’s workforce is at the hiring phase, that requires a different set of solutions than if the problem is at the retention phase, for example.”