Following up on our post of November 18, 2020, from across the pond comes further questioning of the value of implicit bias training. Ministers in the UK government have scrapped the training for civil servants in England and urge that it be ended for other public employees as well.

British psychologist Patrick Forscher, who examined more than 400 studies on unconscious bias, came up with similar conclusions as those recited in our previous post, finding that few studies measured changes over time, and among “the most robust of those that did,” “changes in implicit bias don’t last.” He suggested that such training had too often been used by employers as a “catch all” which failed to tackle the specific barriers for different groups. Halima Begum, chief executive of the Runnymede Trust race equality think tank, agreed that unconscious bias training is not always effective – and recognised the dangers of a corporate “diversity industry” wanting to have “off the shelf” training.

Again, the problem is not one of failing to see bias at work, it appears, but of how to eliminate that bias in a predictably effective way. Changing minds is a much harder lift than changing behaviors, as nearly all psychologists would attest. For example, a straightforward and highly successful way to reform psychopaths, it appears, has been identified in research, in which “switching on” higher levels of empathy has been obtained through suggestive imagining. Those involved were identified as psychopaths through brain imaging because they had certain brain attributes. After the suggested therapy, they did not suddenly have brains that were “normal,” but rather they were able to display a heightened sense of other people’s feelings to at least the degree that for some period of time improved their behavior.

Bias, too, is often identified as emanating from a lack of sufficient empathy. While not an exact analogy, implicit bias training comes up against a similar challenge as has reeducating psychopaths. The problem is the how, of course–exactly how in the real world does one routinely identify those with physiologically low empathy levels, determined by whoever claims to be able to do that, and then how specifically do we “reeducate” them to the degree that they are able to carry on “normal” functioning, whatever that is as determined by whoever claims to know, for a lengthy period of time. So while there has been research nibbling around the edges of solving the very real problem of the misbehavior of psychopaths in our culture and even though there is evidence of what might well impact that problem, there is hardly a reliable method with which to move forward.

Much about thinking has a physiological aspect to it involving a complex balance between the rational prefrontal cortex and the emotional amygdala. What levels of stimulus trigger aspects of each, how much flexibility there is in their operations (which can result in “black/white” thinking, for example), which counteractions of one against the other do or don’t exist–these are often pre-wired and highly individual conditions that “training” will have little impact on physiologically. The best that we can realistically hope for is that there will be a learned response to certain circumstances that a biased person can call upon to change specific behaviors for a period of time. The same hope that we might have for psychopaths. The problem still being identifying who needs and therefore might benefit from such “training,” what that consists of and how to make its impact last.

An important finding in the research regarding raising empathy in psychopaths was that, more than the control subjects, they had to consciously, deliberately activate the mechanisms that would tend to boost their empathy. The problem, the researchers found, was regardless of that ability, psychopaths display low motivation for changing their behavior and are thus less likely to activate those mechanisms, which “represents an unfortunate challenge.” They can, they really just don’t want to be more empathic.

Shall we undertake a company-wide or country-wide brain scan to determine those who are not using their fully empathy capacity? Who decides what amounts to empathy that is sufficient and the level which needs to be reeducated? What reeducation program is used and even if one is decided on, how can that program be made to produce changes that are likely to last? Does there need to be a required “re-inoculation” periodically? What if, as the research into implicit bias training seems to imply, some people just don’t want to be less biased, regardless of how well trained they are?

Apart from screening new recruits for diversity of thought, as we advocated in our last post on implicit bias, what seems like the much more effective, least invasive method to changing biased decisions at work by those currently working there is to simply have a hard set of behaviors that are condoned and those that are endorsed. Those workers who train themselves to abide by those rules are the keepers, regardless of their personal bias, unconscious or otherwise. Those who don’t are asked to leave. Of course, in this ongoing cycle of questions, who comes up with those rules becomes important. Perhaps that is where the potential for brain imaging, reeducation, etc. should come into play.