Why unconscious bias training does not work and will not work

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James Knell
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During the course of my own career I have attended many “unconscious bias training” sessions, some lasting hours, some lasting an entire day, all a complete waste of time. I have in fact never met a person who does not think they are a complete waste of time. “Well at least it gets us away from the desk for a while …” has been the typical response to this most pointless imposition of politically correct corporate culture.

My faith in common sense was thus restored a little by our elected representatives this week when it was reported that a number of Conservative MPs declared they would not take part in unconscious bias training intended to tackle racism in parliament. The MPs in question accused parliamentary authorities of pandering to the “woke agenda”. Hear, hear!

For those of you baffled by this stuff, here is how unconscious bias training is meant to work. It starts from the premise that we are all horribly prejudiced and judgmental. That we make negative assumptions about our colleagues, and interactions with our non-white colleagues in particular are driven by stereotype whether we wish to acknowledge it or not. We therefore must be programmed, indeed reconditioned, to correct this wrong-think. This is done by a ‘diversity consultant’, not a qualified clinical psychologist who might accidentally spill the beans on how not a shred of this is based on actual evidence, you understand. The consultants will charge lots and lots of money but your employer will happily stump up the cash – woe betide those who aren’t seen to be cracking the whip to ensure their employees all understand how racist and bigoted they are.  

You see, I’d be the first to get onboard with this stuff if it was based on reality and worked, by which I mean demonstrably worked. But no study produced by anybody, anywhere, affiliated with any institution has offered a shred of evidence to suggest that such training changes behaviour.

And this is the keyword. In order to diminish the probability of prejudicial behaviour, for the logic to make sense – and this is the logic behind unconscious bias training – it needs to follow that behaviour changes in step. But it doesn’t. On this point, there has been much in the way of credible academic research: this report by academics from the universities of Harvard, Wisconsin, Madison and Virginia found that “ … there is very little evidence that changes in implicit bias have anything to do with … behaviour”.

Even the PC Equality and Human Rights Commission stated in a report in 2018 that the evidence for unconscious bias training effectively changing behaviour is ‘limited’, and that it may cause a ‘backfiring’ effect and actually make people more biased. So say the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development too.

It is fairly obvious to the casual observer that there was never going to be a one-size fits all panacea to bias, but this of course is nothing but an inconvenient truth to the million-pound unconscious bias training industry. Indeed, among academics of psychology themselves (i.e. the kinds of people we should actually be listening to), there is broad consensus regarding the almost insurmountable difficulties in telling the difference between unconscious bias and instantaneous perception.

Here in the UK, a 2017 survey found that 35% of hiring decision-makers intended to increase their investment in diversity initiatives. Civil servants have undertaken unconscious bias training since 2018; similar programmes exist for magistrates, the Met, Google etc. Is this really much of a surprise given how corporate capitulation to the woke agenda has displaced the principle of what works with being seen to do the right thing?

Particularly worrying about this approach is the notion of a company which looks to rewire the thought process of its employees – there’s something a bit 1984 about all of this. Training is of course compulsory and the employee who refuses to participate is disciplined or shown the door. Even if they have the right to refuse, it is a rare worker who stands alone in the face of ostracization by their colleagues. 

As inconvenient a thing as this might be to say, the reality is that unconscious bias is hardwired into human nature – why do we gravitate towards particular people? What compels us to swipe left or swipe right on dating apps? It is deeply naïve to assume that bias does not affect a great many decisions we make every single day of our lives.

This is not to say that there aren’t plenty of practical things that companies can and should do to tackle bias. Things like blind auditions can redress gender bias in orchestras for example. Establishing selection criteria which weeds bias out of the hiring process including blind CVs is another good idea.

Rather than being patronised by diversity consultants who lecture adults with primary school tick-box exercises, is it not eminently more helpful to explain the psychology of bias and its relation to behaviour? Would that not be a more engaging, stimulating, and dare I say it adult, way of learning? 

James Knell

Research Director

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