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From Starbucks to Federal Courts: many are now trying to address the problem of implicit bias

Starbucks has decided to institute company-wide training on implicit bias. The company’s decision came on the heels of an incident where Starbucks employees called the police to remove some black people from the store for doing something that white people do all the time. These black people were waiting for a friend before they bought their coffee. It is, of course, possible that conscious racism against black people motivated these employees to call the police. However, it is more likely that implicit bias, motives that people don’t think about but that cause them to act in certain ways, caused these Starbucks employees to call the police.

Psychologists have studied the phenomenon of implicit bias for decades. Pretty much everybody has an implicit bias against certain groups of people and in favor of other groups of people. For instance, regardless of how much they abhor racism, almost everyone who is not black has implicit bias against black people which unconsciously drives their actions when they interact with black people.

One of the consultants assisting Starbucks believes that companies need to implement systems where employees work together to combat implicit bias, as opposed to asking individuals to police their own biases. “Any strategy that essentially relies on people to try not to be biased is doomed to fail; that’s the heart of the problem,” said David Rock, director of the NeuroLeadership Institute. “You’ve got to shift the focus from individuals trying not to be biased to teams being able to catch bias,” he said.

For example, if an employee wants a raise, Rock would advise a company to have a group of people decide whether to give her a raise so that the group can correct each others’ biases. But using a group is not the only thing a company has to do—it also has to train these groups on how to catch and correct for each others’ biases.

Courts are slowly beginning to understand that implicit bias is a fact of human nature that they need to correct for when conducting jury trials. For example, a federal judge in Iowa discusses implicit bias with potential jurors during the jury selection process and also instructs them, once they are selected, to “evaluate the evidence carefully and to resist jumping to conclusions based on personal likes or dislikes, generalizations, gut feelings, prejudices, sympathies, stereotypes, or biases.” Another federal court in Washington shows a video to potential jurors about implicit bias which gives them a quick training on how to recognize unconscious bias and how to avoid making decisions based on it. More courts should follow the lead of these courts because implicit bias is a fact of life that should not be ignored.