What additional strategies might help mitigate implicit biases? Experimental psychologist Patricia Devine has argued that biases are like “habits”; with effort and practice, they can be broken. According to Devine three conditions need to be met for individuals to successfully counteract their biases:

  • Acknowledgement that we all harbor unconscious biases and motivation to change.
  • Attention to when stereotypical responses or assumptions are activated.
  • Time to practice strategies designed to break automatic associations.

Devine and her colleagues developed an eight-week multi-faceted prejudice habit-breaking intervention - also nicely summarized here. Participants were given a toolkit of five strategies, and were asked to practice at least some of them on a weekly basis. After the intervention, participants self-reported increased concern about racial discrimination, and tested lower on implicit bias against African Americans than those in a control group. The strategies were:

  • Stereotype replacement: recognizing when one is responding to a situation or person in a stereotypical fashion, and actively substituting the biased response with an unbiased one.
  • Counter-stereotypic imagining: detecting one’s stereotypical responses and visualizing examples of people who are famous or known personally who prove the stereotype to be inaccurate.
  • Individuating: gathering specific information about a person, so that the particulars of that person replace generic notions based on group membership.
  • Perspective taking: adopting the perspective of a member of a stigmatized group. This strategy can be useful in assessing the emotional impact on individuals who are often being stereotyped in negative ways.
  • Increasing opportunity for positive contact: actively seeking out situations that expose us to positive examples of stereotyped groups.

In my previous post I noted that education – as in, someone’s general level of schooling – does not appear to be an effective “de-biasing” strategy or factor. However, specific training on the mechanisms of implicit bias can be a potent approach. As Correll and Benard explain in a research review of bias in hiring, exposing decision-makers to “systematic, well-designed research that documents the existence of biased processes is one of the most effective types of intervention. Research and case studies have shown that this type of training significantly reduces biases” (also here and here). Once aware of the existence of unconscious bias, individuals tend to be more careful in scrutinizing their own decisions, thereby avoiding the cognitive shortcuts that lead to biased decisions. Finally, Correll and Benard argue, “exposing people to systematic research on cognitive biases is more effective than alternative models of awareness training, such as those where participants examine their own, particular, biases (see here and here).” In several instances, the latter type of approach has actually been found to increase biases.***

I am a big believer in changing contexts (not individuals) and making it easier for people to “do the right thing” or, in our case, engage in structured thinking and ditch the tendency respond to other people and situations automatically. So, in addition to training and practicing strategies that can help break the habit, what features of the local context may support structured decision-making? 

Accountability: “Holding individuals accountable for their decisions has helped to reduce bias in hiring and promotion decisions,” argue Correll and Benard (see also here, here, here and here). “When managers know they will be required to justify their actions (particularly to an impartial authority), they tend to engage in more complex thought processes and fewer snap judgments (here and here).” A study by Foschi (1996) found that participants were less likely to hold women to a higher standard than men when they were required to explain their responses to a partner in a subsequent task. “Requiring those responsible for making decisions to explain those decisions to a disinterested third party helps preempt the introduction of bias into decision making.”

Transparency: When criteria are objective and explicit, it is easier to ensure that that everybody is held to the same standard. Researchers Uhlmann and Cohen (2005) found that listing job requirements immediately prior to selecting a candidate constrained opportunities to use subjective criteria during candidate selection. Subjective criteria allow bias to be hidden because the standards by which decisions are made are unclear.

Time: Allowing sufficient time to make decisions is another important contextual element. In a field study, Ayres et al. (2004) found that African-American cab drivers received lower tips than white drivers. The authors concluded that decisions made quickly, when one is preoccupied with other things, can result in unconscious discrimination.****

Diversity & Messaging: As mentioned earlier, intergroup contact is one of the best researched means of reducing both explicit (here and here) and implicit bias (here and here). Exposure to a male pre-K teacher, to a black school principal, or to a female mathematician can help challenge and expand our assumptions (conscious or unconscious) about who is good and bad at certain tasks – and even the nature of those jobs and the skills required to do them well. This is important because it helps us break free of the strong cultural associations that often place needless limitations on the aspirations and achievements of women and minorities. Because of its importance, I will address the role of diversity and messaging as “institutional-level de-biasing strategies” in my next post.


* I am not suggesting that teachers, because they are teachers are immune to implicit biases – in fact there is research suggesting that they are not (see Kirwan Institute’s recent review, pp. 30-35).

** There are other important preconditions that must be met for status treatments to work. For example, multiple-ability tasks are a “necessary condition for teachers to be able to convince their students that there are different ways to be “smart.” Students who do not excel at paper-pencil tasks often do excel when academic content is presented in different ways. Tasks that require multiple abilities give teachers the opportunity to give credit to such students for their academic and intellectual accomplishments.” More here.

*** See also, Rudman et al 2001; Legault et al 2011; Mann & Kawakami 2012; Plant & Devine 2001; Valian 1999; Wilson & Brekke 1994. While the motivation to be non-prejudiced may lead to reduced discrimination (Plant, Devine & Peruche 2010), thinking of oneself as non-prejudiced may increase discrimination – e.g., instructing people to assert that they are objective decision-makers prior to a hiring decision increases gender discrimination (Uhlmann & Cohen 2007).

**** For more on the importance of time see Beattie, 2013; Bertrand, Chugh, & Mullainathan, 2005; Richards-Yellen, 2013.