The Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity has become increasingly mindful of how implicit racial biases shape not only individuals’ cognition and attitudes, but also their behaviors. Indeed, a large body of compelling research has demonstrated how these unconscious, automatically activated, and pervasive mental processes can be manifested across a variety of contexts yielding significant impacts. Consider these striking examples:
In a video game that simulates what police officers experience, research subjects were instructed to “shoot” when an armed individual appeared on the screen and refrain from doing so when the target was instead holding an innocuous object such as a camera or wallet. Time constraints were built into the study so that participants were forced to make nearly instantaneous decisions, much like police officers often must do in real life. Findings indicated that participants tended to “shoot” armed targets more quickly when they were African American as opposed to White. When participants refrained from “shooting” an armed target, these characters in the simulation tended to be White rather than African American. Moreover, in circumstances where the target was “shot” in error (i.e., was “shot” even though they were wielding a harmless object), those targets were more likely to be African American than White. Research such as this highlights how implicit racial biases can influence decisions that have life or death consequences.
A 2012 study used identical case vignettes to examine how pediatricians’ implicit racial attitudes affect treatment recommendations for four common pediatric conditions. Results indicated that as pediatricians’ pro-White implicit biases increased, they were more likely to prescribe painkillers for vignette subjects who were White as opposed to Black patients. This is just one example of how understanding implicit racial biases may help explain differential health care treatment, even for youths.
Examining implicit bias research is important for all who work for racial justice because of the rich insights into human behavior that this work generates. Moreover, as convincing research evidence accumulates, it becomes difficult to understate the importance of considering the role of implicit racial biases when analyzing societal inequities. Implicit biases, explicit biases, and structural forces are often mutually reinforcing, thus multiple levels of analysis are necessary to untangle the nuances of these complex dynamics.
With this in mind, and as a testament to the Kirwan Institute’s belief in the importance of understanding implicit bias, we present to you this inaugural edition of our “State of the Science Review of Implicit Bias Learning.” As an annual publication, subsequent editions of this Review will highlight the latest research findings and underscore trends in the field. Our goal is to provide a comprehensive resource that communicates this research in a concise and accessible manner while stimulating further dialogue on implicit bias and its implications for the pursuit of social justice.