Off The Hook

Attributing discriminatory acts to implicit, rather than explicit, bias leads to reduced accountability for perpetrators, and less support for discipline and reform.

Reviewed by Tyrone Fleurizard


As recent as 2015, implicit bias has dominated our national conversation around racism and discrimination. It’s been said, ​for example​, that implicit bias is what led officer Betty Shelby to shoot Terrance Crutcher, an unarmed Black man, in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 2016. When less lethal acts of discrimination occur in schools and in the workplace, often the first solution school and business leaders rely on is implicit bias trainings. ​For example​, after a Starbucks employee called police on two Black men waiting at a table, the CEO shut down 8,000 stores to hold racial bias trainings.

Might there be consequences associated with attributing discrimination to implicit, rather than explicit, bias? Researchers Natalie Daumeyer, Ivuoma Onyeador, Xanni Brown, Jennifer Richeson have discovered this to be the case. Across four studies, they found that the cost of attributing acts of discrimination by doctors and police officers to implict, rather, than explcit bias, is less accountability for discriminatory behavior and beliefs. They find that people show less willingness to support disciplinary action and reform.

Natalie Daumeyer is a doctoral candidate in social psychology at Yale University, where she studies the consequences of attributing bias to implicit versus explicit bias. Ivuoma Onyeador is an Assistant Professor of Management and Organizations at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. Her research broadly explores how people perceive identity-based discrimination and inequality. Xanni Brown is a doctoral candidate in social psychology at Yale University, where she studies intergroup relations, specifically how people come to understand and react to threats to racial hierarchy. Jennifer Richeson is the Philip R. Allen Professor of Psychology at Yale University where she studies a wide array of psychological phenomena related to cultural diversity, including how people experience diversity and respond to inequality.

Methods and Findings

In the first set of studies, participants were asked to read a news article about research that found patterns of discriminatory behavior by doctors toward their patients based on their political attitudes and beliefs. The news article also included information about whether that behavior was due to doctors’ implicit or explicit attitudes. For example, participants read that doctors spent less time with, and acted more aggressively towards, patients who engaged in politicized health behaviors they had biases against, such as gun ownership and recreational marijuana use. After reading those particular documents, participants then reported the degree to which they believed doctors should be held accountable, their concern about the bias, and support for reform and punishment. The researchers found:

  • Participants who read that doctors’ actions were due to their implicit bias–that they had no conscious knowledge they were treating patients differently based on their political attitudes and beliefs–held them less accountable for their actions, were less likely to support punishment, and showed less concern about the bias compared to the explicit bias condition.

In the next study, using the same procedure as before but now with discrimnation based on ageism, the researchers upped the ante. They wanted to investigate whether participants hold doctors accountable if they know that their biased views about their older patients led to their premature death. They found:

  • Even when doctors’ discrimination led to the premature death of their elderly patients, they were held less accountable if they were said to be unaware of their ageist beliefs.
  • Participants in this implicit bias condition also expressed less support for punishing doctors and for reform efforts, and also demonstrated less concern about the bias.

In the final study, the researchers transitioned from medicine to law enforcement. They wanted to explore whether attributing racially unjust police interactions to implicit, rather than explicit, bias led to reductions in perceived police culpability. Given the hypervisibility and sensitivity of the topic, they also wondered whether the degree to which participants’ concern about seeming racially prejudiced might influence their response, and whether or not they would support discipline and reform at the individual or institutional level. The researchers found:

  • Participants in the implicit bias condition who read that police officers with greater racial bias acted more aggressively and were more likely to handcuff racially minoritized individuals as compared to white individuals, held officers less accountable.
  • Participants who were highly internally motivated to respond to situations without prejudice held officers more accountable, and were more likely to support disciplining individual police officers ​and p​olice departments, and were also more likely to support reform efforts at the department-level.
  • Those in the explicit bias condition who were highly internally motivated to respond without prejudice expressed greater support for holding police departments accountable and also expressed more support for reform efforts for individual officers than those in the implicit bias condition.


When people believe discriminatory acts come from implicit bias, rather than explicit bias, they hold the perpetrator less accountable. In discussing the implications of these findings, the researchers are clear that they are ​not​ saying we should move our focus from implicit bias to explicit bias. In fact, they say the opposite.

The researchers believe the rise of implicit bias in the public sphere is important, but conclude that it’s time to have more nuanced conversations about the concept. For example, instead of describing implicit bias as unconscious or uncontrollable–they cite research that shows people do have some ability to detect their implicit biases–we should instead focus our attention on how perceiving discrimination as implicit bias makes people less likely to hold perpetrators accountable for their actions. Further, they emphasize how it is possible for people to override their implicitly held attitudes and beliefs, in addition to developing policies and procedures that push back against the impact of implicit bias on our actions, such as the creation of diversity task forces and the hiring of full-time diversity staff.

The researchers suggest that we now better understand how implicit bias causes harm and reproduces inequality, and it should motivate us to address it both structurally and institutionally. “[T]he more widely-known implicit bias becomes,” the researchers conclude, “the more people (and relevant institutions) can and should be held accountable for its effects.” Once we know better we should do better.


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