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October 1, 2022

Follow the Science: Proven Strategies for Reducing Unconscious Bias

By David Hoffman and Helen Winter

[The following is adapted from an article with the same title to be published in the Harvard Negotiation Law Review, volume 28, issue 1, Fall 2022, and may not be copied without permission of the journal and authors.]

Imagine that you are appearing before a judge and your fate is in their hands.  Will the outcome be affected by your race?  Statistical research suggests that in criminal proceedings, the more Afrocentric your facial features are, the harsher the sentence.

What if you need medical treatment?  Could your race or your gender affect the care you receive?  Again, multiple studies show that the answer is yes.

You’re applying for a job.  Will your race and gender, as indicated on your resume, affect your chances of getting an interview?  Once again, the answer is yes, based on numerous studies.

If you are looking for an apartment to rent, will your race affect your likelihood of finding one?  Abundant research shows that the answer is yes.

Finally, imagine you are buying a car.  Are you likely to be offered a better deal if you are White and male as opposed to Black and female?  A controlled experiment shows that the answer is yes.

What if you asked the judge, doctor, employer, landlord, and car salesperson if they are biased?  We believe that each of them would most likely say “absolutely not!” and mean it.  Yet, the studies cited above suggest otherwise.  These studies, and others like them, demonstrate that unconscious biases are ubiquitous in our society and have pernicious effects.

The term “unconscious bias” (or “implicit bias”) refers to a set of attitudes and stereotypes — whether positive or negative — that we are unaware of.  As lawyers and dispute resolution professionals, our initial goal in writing this article was to provide a “user’s guide” to the burgeoning research on bias reduction for our fellow attorneys and dispute resolvers.  Attorneys have a professional duty of non-discrimination (see ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct 8.4(g)), and dispute resolution professionals (e.g., mediators and arbitrators) have a duty to be impartial (see AAA/ABA/ACR Model Standards of Conduct for Mediators, Standard II(A)).  An important component of both of these duties is to try to identify — and counteract — unconscious bias.

However, once we began delving into the broad expanse of bias-reduction research, we did not want to limit the focus of our endeavor to dispute resolution or law practice.  Reducing unconscious bias should, in our opinion, be a goal of all in our society.  Many of the injustices in our world today — a few of which are described in the opening section of this article — are fostered, reinforced, and perpetuated by unconscious biases.

Scientific research on bias-reduction strategies has identified seven main types of interventions:

  1. Raising awareness of bias
  2. Increasing motivation to counteract bias
  3. Individuation
  4. Perspective-taking and empathy
  5. Contact with “outgroup” members
  6. Stereotype negation / replacement
  7. Mindfulness

It is worth noting that many of these themes overlap (e.g., some interventions designed to raise awareness of bias also have the effect of increasing motivation to counteract bias).  Also, some interventions involve the use of more than one of these techniques.

In the the longer version of the article, we describe each of the seven types of intervention, the research that shows the bias-reduction effect of those interventions, and our own observations about the usefulness of that research, including comments about such factors as sample size and the representativeness (or lack of representativeness) of the participants in the research that bear on the value of that research.

We invite your comments and questions about this article, or the longer version of the article which will be published soon.

[David A. Hoffman is a mediator, arbitrator, attorney and founding member of Boston Law Collaborative, LLC.  He teaches courses on mediation, diversity, and legal ethics at Harvard Law School, where he is the John H. Watson, Jr. Lecturer on Law.]

[Helen Winter is a mediator, lawyer and founder of a German peer mediation program, R3solute; she is also a Graduate Research Fellow at the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School and a Ph.D. candidate at the European University Viadrina in Frankfurt, Germany.]

Bias, Unconscious Bias, Updates

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