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Implicit Bias: We All Have It

July 29, 2015

john-trimble-ibaImagine for a moment: A senior partner in a law firm is caught in an impromptu partner meeting as a important new client arrives at the firm. The client is placed in a conference room and grows increasingly angry as a short wait turns into 20 minutes. An associate greets the partner as the partner exits the meeting and advises that the new client is irate. As the partner opens the door to the conference room chest pains erupt. The associate sees the pain on the face of the partner and runs immediately to call 911…

Here is the little quiz: As you read the description of the events above, how did you see the characters in your mind’s eye? Is the senior partner male or female? Black or white? Young or old? Is the associate male or female? Black or white? Young or more senior? Is the irate client male or female? Black or white? Young or old?

There are no right or wrong answers to this quiz; the images of the characters in your mind’s eye were not based upon fact because the descriptions were neutral. Your images were a product of what has come to be known as “implicit bias.”

So, what is implicit bias? According to the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at Ohio State University, implicit bias refers to “the attitudes and stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions, and decisions in an unconscious manner. These biases, which encompass both favorable and unfavorable assessments, are activated involuntarily and without an individual’s awareness or intentional control….[I]mplicit biases are not accessible through introspection.”

Implicit biases are the fabric of who we are. They are the product of our upbringing, education, experiences, neighborhoods, television, social media, and what we have consciously learned or unconsciously learned from our families and friends. Our implicit biases are impacted by the regions of the country where we were raised and by differences between, urban, suburban, and rural living. Almost anything that has touched our life during our formative years has had an impact on our implicit bias.

Clearly, your implicit bias impacts how you interact with anyone who may be different from you. Your implicit bias also impacts how you react to everyday situations, to news stories, to politics, and to co-workers and friends. It also impacts how judges judge, how lawyers represent clients, and how juries decide cases.

Psychologists and social scientists will tell you that implicit bias impacts where you will sit in the waiting room of your doctor’s office. It will impact how you feel if you are pulled over by a police officer for a traffic offense. And, as demonstrated by the scenario at the outset of this article, implicit bias will cause you to assume things about other people or the stories you hear even when the facts don’t support your assumptions.

Unfortunately for all of us, we cannot change our implicit biases. They are embedded. We cannot control them. However, we can recognize that we have implicit bias, and we can also recognize that others may be seeing things as a result of their own implicit biases. While we cannot control them, we can recognize them when they surface, and we can do our best to behave in a way that overcomes our implicit biases. We can pause, assess our reaction to a person or event, and seek to be objective and to see things through the other person’s eyes. Recognition of our implicit biases can help us all accept and embrace greater diversity of all types. It can help us overcome prejudices.

Implicit bias is one of the most significant reasons why many people resist change. We are more comfortable with what we know, who we know, and what we like. Our legal profession is changing rapidly and in ways we do not yet recognize. All of us are going to have to wrestle with our implicit biases if we wish to succeed as we are confronted by change.

You may ask, “Why is any of this important?” My answer is simple. Lawyers and judges make, interpret, and administer law. We stand up to speak when the public is concerned or enraged by a recent event. We are called on as individuals and in our profession to be the voice of calm and reason. Most importantly, we are the guardians of our system of justice. If we do not understand our implicit biases, then we will be challenged in our ability to carry out the responsibilities we have as lawyers in our society. We lawyers as a profession need to be as objective and unbiased as we possibly can be.

Is it difficult? Yes. Can we do it? Yes, but only if we are aware of our implicit biases and overcome them.• #WILLYOUBETHERE?



 I wish to acknowledge Arin Reeves of Nextions for enlightenment on this subject and for the “senior partner” example I cited.

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