The Power of Implicit Bias

He ends up taking this in a direction I’m not that enthusiastic about, but David Brooks’ summary of some recent behavioral research and its importance for policy is pretty great. I particularly liked the brief section on implicit bias:

Sometimes the behavioral research leads us to completely change how we think about an issue. For example, many of our anti-discrimination policies focus on finding the bad apples who are explicitly prejudiced. In fact, the serious discrimination is implicit, subtle and nearly universal. Both blacks and whites subtly try to get a white partner when asked to team up to do an intellectually difficult task. In computer shooting simulations, both black and white participants were more likely to think black figures were armed. In emergency rooms, whites are pervasively given stronger painkillers than blacks or Hispanics. Clearly, we should spend more effort rigging situations to reduce universal, unconscious racism.

This is a huge issue for business as well as government, I would say. In principle, you want to manage your firm internally without bias. You want to promote the best people regardless of gender or skin color. If anything, given the existence of implicit bias and old hierarchical norms you want to exploit the profit-making opportunities created by discrimination against women and people of color. But in order to do that, you have to understand how bias works. It’s much too easy as a manager to look around and see that nobody’s engaged in any comical Mad Men-style gross racist or sexist behaviors and persuade yourself that all is well.

It’s not.