Confronting Implicit Bias

There is a difference between personal biases we choose not to reveal, and those that remain concealed even when we engage in earnest introspection. This latter type, known as implicit bias, was the subject of a recent talk by UCLA Vice Chancellor Jerry Kang, who visited the Law School to kick off the dean’s series on diversity, inclusion, and freedom of expression. The issues are ones that universities across the country have wrestled with in recent months—and ones that Dean Thomas J. Miles said he hopes the Law School community will debate and discuss.

“To be true to its faith in intellectual inquiry, the University must embrace, be hospitable to, and encourage the widest diversity of views within in its community,” Miles said during his introduction, invoking the Kalven Committee Report.  

Kang’s talk, Taking Implicit Bias Seriously, drew on social psychology research to explain the unconscious biases that can lead to discriminatory conduct.  

“What we want in the law, in the legal industry, is a tournament of merit—where our merits actually decide whether we win or lose,” said Kang, a Professor of Law and the inaugural Vice Chancellor for Equity, Diversity and Inclusion at UCLA. But disparity is everywhere, a reality that is shaped by our views whether we know it or not.

Kang talked about Project Implicit, a nonprofit organization that uncovers hidden bias by measuring, among other things, how quickly people sort positive and negative words with images of individuals from different social categories. For example, if we associate positive words with images of men more quickly than we do with images of women, this reflects an implicit preference for men. The results indicate that regardless of self-reports, 80 percent of subjects showed an implicit preference for young people over old; 68 percent prefer white over black; 69 percent prefer thin over overweight; and 76 percent prefer able-bodied over disabled.

In an experiment seeking to measure the correlation between implicit biases and human behavior, subjects watched a short video of a computer-generated man whose expression moved from unhappy to smiling. Half of the participants were presented with a computer-generated white man, and the other half were presented with a nearly identical computer-generated black man. Participants were asked to note the moment when they saw the man’s expression turn into a smile. 

The outcome, Kang said, was that on average “it took a full second longer for [participants with high levels of implicit bias] to see the smile on the black man’s face.”

Unlike explicit biases, “implicit biases seem a little bit stickier; they are larger, and they’re what you would expect people to have had fifty or one hundred years ago,” Kang said.

Implicit bias, though hidden from plain sight, is powerful. Kang spoke about the steps to secure a job, and with each step—from reviewing the resume, to interviewing the candidate, to crafting performance reviews—implicit bias may affect every decision people make. “Little differences, when you integrate them over time, can have big impacts,” Kang said, explaining why the tournament of merit isn’t as merit-based as we would like to believe.

Though it will be difficult to change something so pervasive, Kang did offer suggestions to help solve this problem. “I want everyone to re-double their motivation to be fair,” he said.  “It’s not just about being politically correct or having sensitivity, it has to be internally motivated.” Kang also advised his audience to be humble and curious, and to hold themselves accountable for their actions.

Urging students to confront their own biases, Kang asked: “How do we push ourselves to become who we aspire to be?”