During the first presidential debate, Hillary Clinton argued that “implicit bias is a problem for everyone, not just police.” Her comment moved to the forefront of public conversation an issue that scientists have been studying for decades: namely, that even well-meaning people frequently harbor hidden prejudices against members of other racial groups. Studies have shown that these subtle biases are widespread and associated with discrimination in legal, economic and organizational settings.
Critics of this notion, however, protest what they see as a character smear — a suggestion that everybody, deep down, is racist. Vice President-elect Mike Pence has said that an “accusation of implicit bias” in cases where a white police officer shoots a black civilian serves to “demean law enforcement.” Writing in National Review, David French claimed that the concept of implicit bias lets people “indict entire communities as bigoted.”
But implicit bias is not about bigotry per se. As new research from our laboratory suggests, implicit bias is grounded in a basic human tendency to divide the social world into groups. In other words, what may appear as an example of tacit racism may actually be a manifestation of a broader propensity to think in terms of “us versus them” — a prejudice that can apply, say, to fans of a different sports team. This doesn’t make the effects of implicit bias any less worrisome, but it does mean people should be less defensive about it.
Furthermore, our research gives cause for optimism: Implicit bias can be overcome with rational deliberation.
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