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This Q&A with Tony Greenwald, in Knowable Magazine, addresses curbing implicit bias.

Q&A — Psychologist Anthony Greenwald

Curbing implicit bias: what works and what doesn't
Psychologists have yet to find a way to diminish hidden prejudice, but they do have strategies for thwarting discrimination

By Betsy Mason

Aquarter-century ago, social psychologist Anthony Greenwald of the University of Washington developed a test that exposed an uncomfortable aspect of the human mind: People have deep-seated biases of which they are completely unaware. And these hidden attitudes — known as implicit bias — influence the way we act toward each other, often with unintended discriminatory consequences.

Since then, Greenwald and his main collaborators, Mahzarin Banaji and Brian Nosek, have used the implicit association test to measure how fast and accurately people associate different social groups with qualities like good and bad. They have developed versions of the test to measure things such as unconscious attitudes about race, gender stereotypes and bias against older people. Those tests have revealed just how pervasive implicit bias is. (Project Implicit offers public versions of the tests on its website here.)

The researchers' work has also shown how much implicit bias can shape social behavior and decision-making. Even people with the best intentions are influenced by these hidden attitudes, behaving in ways that can create disparities in hiring practices, student evaluations, law enforcement, criminal proceedings — pretty much anywhere people are making decisions that affect others. Such disparities can result from bias against certain groups, or favoritism toward other ones. Today, implicit bias is widely understood to be a cause of unintended discrimination that leads to racial, ethnic, socioeconomic and other inequalities.

Discussions around the role of racism and implicit bias in the pattern of unequal treatment of racial minorities by law enforcement are intensifying following a roster of high-profile cases, most recently the killing of George Floyd. Floyd, an unarmed black man, died in Minneapolis last month after a white police officer pressed his knee into Floyd's neck for nearly nine minutes.

As awareness of implicit bias and its effects has increased, so has interest in mitigating it. But that is much harder to do than scientists expected, as Greenwald told an audience in Seattle in February at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Greenwald, coauthor of an overview on implicit bias research in the 2020 Annual Review of Psychology, spoke with Knowable Magazine about what does and doesn’t work to counter the disparities that implicit bias can produce.

Read the conversation here.