Implicit Bias and Structural Change

Social psychology research on implicit bias is critical to understanding the human brain and identifying opportunities to advance structural change. 

Reviewed by Sakshee Chawla


Although humans believe we can “control” our behavior, scientists report that we have conscious access to only 2% of our brains’ emotional and cognitive process. Ninety-eight percent of the human brain works without active thinking. This indicates that there is an inconsistency between our conscious attitudes and our behaviors. How can these scientific lessons help us better understand Americans’ attitudes and behaviors regarding race? 

powell and Godsil wrote this article (Sept/Oct 2011 P&R Issue) in response to an article “Does Unconscious Bias Matter?” written by researchers Ralph Richard Banks and Richard Thompson in the same issue. Authors john powell and Rachel Godsil call attention to the United States’ cognitive dissonance regarding race. Despite some racial progress, the US continues to be plagued by impediments that prevent the full inclusion of people of color. This includes persistent racial disparities in incarceration, wealth, and academic achievement as well as microaggressions in workplaces and schools. Individuals can find it difficult to recognize the structural and systemic barriers facing people of color and instead view the status of minoritized communities as a reflection of individual initiative. Narratives that focus blame for inequities on personal choices rather than on legal, economic and political systems are prevalent and persist in American society. powell and Godsil argue that recognition and understanding of unconscious bias that is formed and upheld by racist narratives should be integral in efforts to modify legal and policy structures to advance racial and social justice.

The authors view implicit bias research as an opportunity for an honest conversation on race in the United States, instead of an obstacle to progress, yet also assert its limitations. Implicit bias, a term coined by psychologists in 1995, refers to attitudes that unconsciously influence our understanding, actions, and decisions, making them difficult to control. The authors emphasize that the conversation on implicit bias and race must also be accompanied with policies that eliminate structural barriers. Otherwise, it would be naïve at best to assume that implicit bias research and training alone could move people to address systemic hurdles. 

An expert in civil rights and structural racism, john powell is Professor of Law, African American Studies, and Ethnic Studies at UC Berkeley. He also serves as the Director of the Othering & Belonging Institute, a research institute at UC Berkeley, and as a board member of the Poverty & Race Research Action Council. Rachel Godsil is a Professor of Law at Rutgers Law School and serves as the Co-Founder and Co-Director of the Perception Institute. She works to identify the efficacy of interventions relating to implicit bias, racial anxiety, and stereotype threat.

Methods and Findings

While powell and Godsil recognize Banks and Ford as adept scholars who have written widely on racial justice, they disagree with the scholars’ stance on implicit bias. While Banks and Ford view research on implicit bias as an impediment to progress, powell and Godsil believe that insights from social psychologists on implicit bias can foster constructive dialogue on race and help to eradicate racial barriers. 

Humans create schemas, or cognitive frameworks, that help us organize and interpret information in our environment. Schemas can cause us to exclude crucial information and only focus on areas that reinforce our pre-existing beliefs and ideas, thereby contributing to stereotypes. One dimension of bias the authors in the article address is that our brains tag people as members of the “out-group” (or people who do not belong to a specific “in-group”), therefore resulting in bias. This insight can help us understand the salience of race in American society. Although people often reject the idea of having negative racial stereotypes against those in the “out-group,” data from political opinion surveys indicates that race continues to play a critical role in American society. Therefore, while individuals may believe they consciously reject racial stereotypes, the human brain schematizes people on the basis of race and therefore upholds implicit bias.

powell and Godsil argue that racial disparities are not merely a consequence of individual actions but instead embedded across institutions in society. Without understanding how race operates psychologically and recognizing the macro-level mechanisms that operate independently of the actions of individuals, one cannot successfully challenge structural racism. Since policy is designed by individuals who are influenced by implicit biases, public policies must target institutional structures, instead of merely focusing on individual racism. Further, because human behavior influences institutional recourse, the success of policies that target racial inequities in organizations depends on the active commitment and participation of individuals developing these policies.


As implicit bias is a result of pervasive stereotypes within society, broad societal change, not just individual change, is necessary to overcome biases and eliminate stereotypes. It is not sufficient to merely interact with individuals from identity groups different from your own. Instead, it is imperative to question negative images and stereotypes that contribute to problematic narratives about racial minorities to achieve sustained change. Despite our conscious selves working to avoid negative stereotypes, our unconscious minds are not easily manipulated and hold onto these positions. It is therefore critical to address structural barriers that not only disadvantage people of color but also reinforce harmful narratives. 

Individual racial attitudes contribute to larger structural “racialization,” defined by the authors as the set of practices, cultural norms, and institutional arrangements that reflect, create, and maintain racialized social outcomes. As long as humans are influenced by their implicit biases, inequalities will continue to persist. Yet, research indicates that people tend to make significant efforts to correct racial bias as soon as the potential for such bias is made clear. For example, when race is made explicitly relevant to jurors, white jurors tend to treat Black and white defendants identically. However, when race is not highlighted, white jurors tend to treat Black defendants more harshly. Therefore, implicit bias research has the potential to help us address and overcome structural inequalities that result from structural racialization. 

Implicit bias research also allows individuals to recognize inconsistencies between their “self-concept” and behavior, therefore unlocking a route to social progress. Self-concept refers to the self-constructed beliefs that people hold about themselves, and people’s desire to maintain these beliefs can result in changes in behavior. For example, the Implicit Association Test is one bias measurement tool that people have used to explore the limits of their self-concepts. Although the test cannot clearly discern the difference between implicit and deliberately hidden bias, the tool provides a window into understanding bias—and an opportunity to correct it.

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