Unconscious Bias Training Doesn’t Work

A critical evaluation of unconscious bias training indicates there is little to no data to provide its effectiveness in motivating and changing behavior

Reviewed by Penny Sun


Unconscious bias training is based on the methodology in social psychology that an individual’s response time when presented with 2 images reveals how closely the viewer unconsciously connects the two. By using two sets of images — one of people with different racial/ethic backgrounds and one of negative or positive attributes, prior researchers have demonstrated that most people respond faster to the combination of positive associations with white people and negative associations with Black people. Since the introduction of “unconscious bias” in the 2000s, a new form of diversity training has emerged in response. These trainings aim to support people in acknowledging their own unconscious racial biases, with the understanding that awareness of how racism impacts your behavior and decisions at an unconscious level is the first step in changing behavior. However, this type of “training” is not evidence-based, and there is not yet enough evidence to show that it has any outcomes related to diversity, racism, or bias. 

Methods and Findings

This author suggests that the lack of outcomes from unconscious bias trainings may be due to the challenges of transferring a psychological concept into a sociological training setting without addressing the implications and underlying theory and assumptions. Many of unconscious trainings are predicated on the assumption that knowing you have a bias means that you will change your behavior – for example, the author points to one study that showed that unconscious bias training resulted in organizational backlash rather than prompting antiracist change. In addition, the authors note, much of the discourse on unconscious bias ignores the breadth and impact of institutional racism and focuses instead on solely interpersonal racism.


Unconscious, individual bias is a big problem, but unconscious bias training is not solving it,despite the catchy name; these trainings fail to acknowledge group dynamics and structural racism. There is no evidence that knowledge about bias results in behavior change. and the design of unconscious bias training does not inspire the type of self-reflection that would be needed to affect behavioral change. Lastly, the approach itself does not have clearly defined tools and techniques nor robust evaluation mechanisms to gauge outcomes.

Additional critical examination is needed into the methods and outcomes of unconscious bias training, including accumulation of sufficient data to support its underpinnings. This article brings much needed critique of “mainstream” fads in anti-racism training, particularly the crucial point that even if unconscious bias training works in some contexts, it is explicitly limited to individual racism and entirely ignores (and thus absolves) institutional, structural, and organizational racism. The author notes that even if the stated goal of unconscious bias training — to nudge individuals to recognize that they are biased — was successful, the approach also does nothing to motivate people to change or show them what they could do differently to enact more equitable behavior and a more equitable workplace.


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