Change the bias, change the behavior? Maybe not

August 11, 2019

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Change the bias, change the behavior? Maybe not

A meta-analysis suggests that ridding people of implicit biases may not lead to changes in related behaviors.

The concept of implicit bias has made its way into the general consciousness, most often in the context of racial bias. More broadly, however, implicit biases can affect how people think of anything—from their thoughts about cookies to those about race.

What the researchers say: “All the little ways in which our everyday thinking about social stuff is unconscious or uncontrollable,” said the lead researcher. “The stuff that we don’t realize is influencing us when we make decisions.”

Along with a broader cultural awareness of implicit bias is the idea that the actions they influence can be changed by eliminating the bias itself. Change the bias, changes in the behavior will follow. It seems logical enough.

If true, reducing implicit bias could be put to practical use for anything from ending discrimination to losing weight (dialing down a cookie bias). I love cookies!

In a meta-analysis of research papers published about implicit bias, however, the authors found that the evidence does not show this kind of causal relationship.

The new research is published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

The researchers systematically reviewed 492 studies that dealt with changing people’s “automatic mental processes,” the uncontrollable, unconscious mental processes that have come to be known in particular contexts as “implicit bias.”

The studies contained more than 87,000 participants. After crunching the numbers, the researchers saw that studies suggest biases can, in fact, be changed—although not dramatically.

When they homed in, looking at 63 studies that explicitly considered a link between changes in bias and changes in actions, however, they found no evidence of a causal relationship.

“We definitely didn’t expect this,” they said. “And it challenges assumptions about the relationship between implicit bias and behavior.”

So, what? This is a remarkable study which will change many of our assumptions about behavioral change. Alicia and I have always believed that it is very difficult to change a person’s mindset and that trying to do so is basically a waste of time.

You can, however, change behavior and that the mindset, or the bias—there is probably little difference—is of much less importance. That has now been proved to be true. We believe that bias and mindset are changed through changes in behavior rather than the other way around.

Dr Bob Murray

Bob Murray, MBA, PhD (Clinical Psychology), is an internationally recognised expert in strategy, leadership, influencing, human motivation and behavioural change.

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