After the Webinar: Implicit Bias – Research and Reality. Q&A with the Presenters

Webinar presenters Renee Mitchell and Lois James answered a number of your questions after their presentation, Implicit Bias: Research & Reality.  Here are just a few of their responses.


Audience Question:  Here’s a statement from William that was really interesting and I’d love to know your feedback on it. So that statement is that changes in culture are the result of lecture, scenario-based training, policy changes, and direct supervision. So, he kind of neatly combined all of this. So, I think that’s what you guys were saying. I want you guys to confirm or refute it. 

Lois James: Yeah, absolutely. And culture changes not just for implicit bias. I do a lot of work around health and wellness efforts, fatigue management, sleep hygiene, that kind of thing. Culture is either the biggest advocate or barrier to change, right? So, in my mind, you’re 100% right and the culture change is sometimes excruciatingly slow. Sometimes, it can launch forward, but that’s the thing to really push for.

Renee Mitchell: I think, in some ways, I don’t think we’ve learned really well on policing, like how to line those things up. That’s why I probably should’ve made the question a bit more succinct about how many hours, you know. I think sometimes, like, we do these number of hours and they’re arbitrary, right? We have this level of importance. You know if it’s super important then it’s a 24 to 40-hour class but we have no idea if 24 hours and 40 hours is really better or gets more learning than eight hours. Should it be a two-hour class and then six months later, another two-hour class, which is why we’re doing a little bit of that survival analysis is to learn, you know, if it goes away, do we need to do a reinforcement? I do agree, is it that we need, like, a two-hour class and there needs to be a policy in place that somebody’s supervising to make sure that policy is enacted. Once you have the knowledge base and then you have the policy with the supervision that turns into a culture and you build this sandwich that eventually gets you where you need to go. I don’t think we done a very good job with both the research and in policing to really create that for ourselves just say here we’re trying to shift the way our organization works. This is how you do it. I think we’re getting there, and I think we’re getting better, I mean, I hate to be, sounds critical of policing, but that’s the way every profession is, right? We’re all better than we were 50 years ago. We’re all learning and improving so I think that’s a very good point.



Audience Question: Is implicit bias the same thing as racism? 

Lois James: Great question. In my mind, no, it’s not, I would usually reserve a term, like racist or racism to somebody who claims it, right? So, it doesn’t mean that implicit bias can’t lead to racial discrimination. It certainly can. I would usually use words like racism or sexism for people who kind of come out and claim, you know, solid statements about race and sex.

Renee Mitchell: If it’s out there, they’re explicit about it.



Audience Question:  Any advice on how to get through to officers who, regardless of evidence to the contrary, believe this training is simply accusing them of being racist? 

Lois James: And I will tell you, as somebody who delivers this kind of training, that is probably one of the bigger challenges. Let me first off say that, I’m not an officer. I never have been. I have a great deal of empathy. You know, it is a very, very difficult job. I do understand that for officers who are trying to do well, who are just out there doing their best, there can be quite an amount of defensiveness. Kind of thinking like, well, everybody thinks that we’re racist and everybody thinks that we’re brutal and corrupt. I understand why some officers come into the training with that mentality. For me, personally, I think the way that we try and get through that is really just talking about it just by talking about, you know, like we said, over and over again that mental filter, you know. If an officer says to me, well, I don’t have implicit biases. If that’s the case, then you’re not human, right. So, just really understanding that implicit bias, it is that mental filter, it is that thumbprint on our brain. That doesn’t mean that we’re not going to be controlled by things that are happening in the background and the way to safeguard against that is by awareness and by really, really kind of knowing yourself and knowing, you know, what are my triggers. If I’m massively stressed, and I’m really, really tired, what are the things that I actually will bite on that normally I wouldn’t, that normally, I’m going to have the self-control and the professionalism, to just let slide, You know, what are the things that are actually going to bother me if I’m in that state? That’s very similar to kind of knowing that mental filter.

Renee Mitchell: Since I know we’re running out of time, the thing that I like to try to throw in and if you have control over, like, what your implicit bias class has in it, is I try to find the examples that are outside of a policing because I think if you could throw in, like, the example that Lois gave about the doctors with the pain medication, There’s also examples of the one with orchestras and the biases about, you know, women on the French horn. So, I’ve tried to find these other examples so officers understand that implicit biases act as a filter for information and facts, and it doesn’t make you racist, doesn’t make you a bad person. It just is a thing about being a human being. So, it’s not there to make them feel bad as cops. It’s just there. So, I’ve always tried to find all these other examples to weave in. I have no evidence that that helps, It’s just, it’s the only thing I can think of to try to mitigate the, you know, these police officers, right?

Lois James: One thing that I often do is actually speak from a personal level, you know, speaking from my own experience and a story that I tell. It’s hard for me to tell it but I do quite a lot, just because I think that it can really land with people. When my, when my daughter was, I think, about three and a half, maybe four years old, I was playing with her with little Lego friends, which are like Lego characters but they’re a bit bigger, and they have skin tone. I hunted for one and she said to me, I don’t want to play with that one. I asked why with, you know, all the hairs on the back of my neck standing up, and a kind of a sinking feeling, and my gosh. She said I don’t like her. She has dark skin. As a bias researcher, you know, I’m kind of trying at the moment trying not to freak out, trying to figure out what’s going on. End up, you know, talking with her quite calmly and she told me that the minder at a daycare that she was at told her that. When they were playing, the woman had said that to her. We addressed it and my husband went to make sure that that woman wouldn’t have a job anymore. So, he addressed the systemic issue, and I addressed the individual one. That took a long time to undo. And if I could see everybody, I would say, you know, raise your hand if you think that developing that implicit bias was my daughter’s fault. Most people would say no.  I mean, of course, not. That’s how implicit bias works. That doesn’t mean we’re not responsible for our impact and our outcomes. But, you know, implicit bias,  it can creep up on you. Just because you, you have some implicit bias, doesn’t mean you’re a bad person. It just means you’re responsible for figuring out what to do about it.



Audience Question:  So, talking about other things that could be causes of implicit bias. On stress and cortisol levels and the amygdala and implicit bias. Are they related? Is it not really related? What does the research say? 

Lois James: Yeah. They’re absolutely related and we do a lot of testing in our lab, kind of, you know, wiring people up and looking at brain patterns and whatnot. The amygdala is very much kind of the fear center, you know, responsible for emotion. Typically, what we see if someone’s in a fight or flight response, if someone’s in sympathetic response, the amygdala is driving, right? And you can think about it. It’s almost like the accelerator in a car. The pre-frontal cortex, which is the area just across the forehead, that’s like the break, right? So sometimes when we hear about these tragedies, where an officer makes just a catastrophic mistake that’s really hard to understand why it happened, it’s because of stress, because of fatigue, because of the sympathetic response, the pre-frontal cortex is essentially offline. So, the car is being driven with just the gas and not the break. So, a furtive movement is interpreted in a particular way. Just like on the Serengeti, a gazelle sees the rustle in the grass and it’s not going to wait to see if it’s a lion. It’s just going to —, right? We’re more evolved. We have the pre-frontal cortex. We have the ability to go, “Whoa, it’s not a gun, it’s just a wallet.” But, if that is offline, that’s where some of those issues can occur. That, unfortunately, is one of those places where implicit bias could creep in and could influence our decision-making process. Really, at that point, it’s not even a decision-making process that could influence our reactions. So, a lot of the training that we do is you have a strong basis in neuroscience and really trying to get officers to recognize that the longer they stay in control and the more, you know, the more they can try and remain in a parasympathetic state, the better off they’ll be across the board in policing skills.




Audience Question:  Do you have any recommendations on the best way to change the implicit bias mindset in a correctional environment? 

Lois James: Great question. I’ve done some work with correction officers. It’s primarily been around stress and PTSD, and sleep restriction but my feeling on it, and Renee, you know, certainly jump in here as well. But my feeling on it is it’s likely a similar approach to one that we would look at with law enforcement. So, whether that’s kind of implicit bias training, you know, positive interactions. So, we do hear, you know, certainly anecdotally that if COs can interact with inmates in more positive ways, it can reduce some of the implicit associations that they have. Again, that’s just anecdotal, and not based on any evidence yet. Just making sure that the policies in place are as fair and equitable as possible. Renee, you have anything to add to that?

Renee Mitchell: Yeah, I was going to say I’d have to agree. It’s tough because, I mean, I’m making the assumption that Corrections is a lot like policing that they suffer from the same issues that we do. So, you would have a similar approach that you would take with the police officers. So, I pretty much agree with everything you would say.

Lois James: The one thing I’ve consistently heard from correction officers, and I apologize if there are upper-level correction management on the call. But a lot of the stresses that they face are actually not anything to do with inmates at all. They’re more organizational stressors and I know that you know, we certainly can see that in policing as well. It’s just kind of an interesting thing to note.



Audience Question:  Is there any way we can incorporate implicit racial bias detection during the recruiting and selection process? 

Lois James: Great question. My strong warning, in terms of looking at implicit bias, is that we know from a  reasonable amount of research now that having implicit bias does not necessarily equate to discriminatory behavior. So, you know, there’s a big conversation around, well, why don’t we just give everybody the implicit association test as recruits and if they have these implicit associations, just don’t hire them. That’s a little bit like you know assessing for risk and kind of punishing people for something that they could do. I’m an advocate of people taking the implicit association test or something like that for, you know, so that they can know themselves. You know, I think that that’s really important, but using it as a screening tool, there’s certainly some controversy there. Renee,  what are your thoughts on that one?

Renee Mitchell:  Yeah, so, it’s my understanding that in California, Gavin Newsome is trying to have some type of testing for officers for implicit bias. That’s one of those things where that’s really tough because then how do you say, like you were saying, like, people can’t be held accountable for what’s in their head. It’s also, like, trying to be, as the minority report. You’re being punished for something like you haven’t even done yet. Implicit bias is implicit bias throughout all races. You know,  it’s not a white person problem. Like, it’s an all-race problem, you know, for things like age, gender, and weight, all types of things. So, to try to have something that you’re keeping people out of a profession because of potential implicit bias, well then, you should keep doctors out. You should keep attorneys out. You should be keeping like everybody out because implicit bias is human nature, so I think there are ways to think about these things, to think about can we do them better? I brought up the orchestra, how they used to have this and it wasn’t even an implicit bias. It was just straight explicit. They said that women couldn’t play the French horn because we didn’t have the lung capacity. So now they do the blind auditions where you know, you can’t hear a woman’s heels on the floor, they put something down on the floors and they put a blind up. So, you don’t know if somebody is pretty or unattractive or overweight or male or female because I mean, one of the implicit biases is if you’re attractive, you’re smart, I think, also tall and smart. Like all of those things that we have these biases about. So, the orchestra has gone to, you know, the extra lengths to try to say, okay, we’re going to put these things in place to try to prevent those things. I think that’s the better approach than trying to have some type of test to weed people out. I think the better approach is to think about if we’re trying to keep our implicit biases from coming in for our recruiting, like, here are some things we can do. Then, when we get people in, as officers, here are the things we can do to manage the implicit bias that they have as human beings. So, I think it’s better to think about, like, how do you adjust and make practices better not how to exclude people because they have implicit bias. We have implicit bias. You can’t get around it. So then, you would just exclude everyone.

Lois James:  So, now, screening based on explicit bias is a different story. Right. So, you know, I mean, there, there are certain professions where they use things like the subtle and blatant and subtle prejudice scale, for example. That can certainly feed into the decision-making process around recruitment because it is more explicit. Just a caveat with the implicit.

Renee Mitchell: Well, if you think of a policing doesn’t have those things in place but most police agencies now, like they check your Facebook page, they look at what you’re posting. If you have explicit biases in, I mean, this isn’t research-based, but the correlation is, like, you’re probably posting some of these things somewhere. And that a backgrounder is going to look at that and say, hey, you’ve been saying nice things about women. Or you’ve been saying these things about a certain group or a certain religion or a certain culture. That’s not what we’re looking for, you know, so I think there are things in place-ish. They’re just not perfect.



Audience Question:  I’ve worked with officers who say we all have an implicit bias almost as an excuse for overuse of force. What is the best way to respond to this statement?

Lois James: And that right there is, is where, you know, there’s a concern about, the kind of the potential negative impact of implicit bias training. Because one thing that we do, you know, as a group of, as a group of implicit bias trainers, tends to be this is a human phenomenon and, you know, couldn’t run the risk of normalizing or justifying. So, what I do, as I said before, is I always really, really laser in on that intention and impact, right?  Just because you don’t intend to cause harm doesn’t necessarily mean that you don’t. So, I think, you know, sure, one should not necessarily be blamed for the implicit biases they have, but they are certainly responsible for making sure those implicit biases don’t spill over into discriminatory behavior. So, it’s definitely a balance because you don’t want to, you don’t want to alienate your trainees. You don’t want to push people away and you don’t want to shut them down so that no information is actually reaching them. You don’t want to kind of normalize or justify either. So, that’s been my approach with it. Renee,  what do you think there?

Renee Mitchell: No, I am pretty much the same.


Click Here to Watch a Recording of Implicit Bias: Research & Reality.   


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