Why Implicit Bias Training Fails

An officer approaches four young black men standing on a street corner in dim lighting. One black man thinks, “This officer will ask for my ID” and reaches towards his back pocket for his wallet. The officer perceives the young man is reaching for a gun.

Perceptions and actions are initiated in the nonconscious brain, or what we refer to as the back-channel. The back-channel has been wired over millions of years to form associations between concepts, objects, and events. Most of these associations are based on a lifetime of interactions with family, friends, colleagues, and others in a socio-cultural context that includes second-order influencers, like television shows, movies, books, music, social media, etc. These types of associations become a person’s lived experiences, informing how they interpret and react to situations.

The back-channel uses these lived experiences to guide how people interact with their world on a moment-by-moment basis. This arrangement allows the back-channel to make quick assessments and snap judgments outside of conscious awareness to meet species-specific goals, like reproduction and survival.

The officer’s back-channel had learned to associate “young black men” with “danger” via socio-cultural influencers in the example above. This association was even stronger, given the context of a dimly lit street corner. But here is an important distinction: The officer did not consciously make that connection; the officer’s lifetime of influencers wired the back-channel to make that connection automatically and put the officer on high alert. The officer’s back-channel presumed threat, so the officer perceived the young black man as reaching for a gun.

Let’s slightly modify this example: The officer approaches four young white men standing on a dimly lit street corner. One of the white men thinks, “This officer will ask for my ID” and reaches for his wallet. The officer perceives the young white man is reaching for his wallet.

In this modified example, the officer’s back-channel makes no presumptions of threat when the man reaches for his wallet because associating “young white men” with “danger” was not wired into the officer’s back-channel in the first place.

That is implicit bias.

Two different perceptions – of reaching for a gun versus reaching for a wallet – for this nearly identical event.

In both examples, the officer’s back-channel made quick assessments and snap judgements based on associations that had been built over a lifetime of lived experiences and influences. In the first example, the back-channel associated “black” with “threat” and “threat” with “gun” in a flash. But since there was no association between “white” and “threat” in the officer’s back-channel, there was no need to presume “gun” in the modified example.

The big picture outcome of these back-channel associations is that the officer perceives and acts differently towards different people. Without a real understanding of the back-channel and how it works, “officer safety” may be the reason erroneously given for treating the men in the two examples differently. The real culprit? The back-channel with its implicit biases.

Here is why implicit bias training fails: Implicit bias training does not change a person’s behavior.

And how could it? You cannot override a lifetime of back-channel wiring with a four- or eight-hour class. And frankly, why would you want to? Trial and error, and more trial and error, over millions and millions of years built the back-channel system into what it is today. If we could easily change this, we would just muck it up.

Implicit bias training can change a person’s knowledge-level and understanding of the issues. It can change a person’s attitudes and motivation towards race. Both of these are great outcomes. But the scientific literature overwhelmingly shows there are no significant changes in officers’ repeated behaviors attributable to implicit bias training.

In other words, implicit bias training would not have changed the officer’s original perception of the young black man reaching for a gun. And that is a problem.

Cognitive Command Training addresses the issue of implicit bias through backchannel training.

The key to changing officer behavior is to give the back-channel a structured system that makes officer safety concepts easy to associate with the job of policing. Cognitive Command Training does this over time by having officers engage in short, daily and weekly microtrainings. Neuroscientists developed these microtrainings specifically for wiring the back-channel to recognize biased behaviors, among other things. It is this science of automatic thinking that Cognitive Command Training harnesses to guide policing behaviors.

Multiple research studies have shown that Cognitive Command Training significantly reduces biased behaviors in both academy students and veteran officers. Bottom line: When an officer has good positioning, is near or behind cover, has an escape route planned, and is mindfully connected to that moment in time, he or she makes more appropriate decisions and treats people more fairly.

To the communities that law enforcement serves, that’s a success!

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