If you google the term “unconscious bias,” you will likely stumble across articles claiming it is impossible to reduce your unconscious bias. You may even find such articles in the primary literature.

Fortunately, you can ignore these articles, because they are wrong.

There are scientifically proven ways to reduce your bias long-term, but there are several key steps you must follow in order for the training to be effective.

Trainings that don’t follow all these steps can be not only ineffective, but counter-productive. If the person running the training doesn’t provide certain material, the attendees can leave the workshop with more bias than when they started.

These steps have been outlined since at least the mid-90’s (Wilson and Brekke 1994), and are the foundation for more recent studies too (Devine et al 2012). To be able to reduce your bias, you must:

  1. Be motivated to overcome your unconscious bias.
  2. Become aware of your bias and why it exists.
  3. Be able to detect the subtle influence of stereotypes.
  4. Learn and practice strategies that help reduce your unconscious bias.

Before you read any further, we highly recommend that you start by taking the IAT to determine the likely direction and magnitude of your own unconscious biases. Then read or review the page on how unconscious bias can hurt people (link). Lastly, read the page about how stereotypes result in bias (link), so you know how to spot bias in action. Then continue reading below!

Steps to reduce bias

In a controlled lab setting, a workshop taught the following 5 strategies to participants, who took the IAT before the training, and were retested several more times over a six month period. The training was effective at reducing unconscious bias, as measured by the IAT, for at least three months (Devine et al 2012). The researchers that developed the training have since used it to increase diversity in hiring practices at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and to reduce racial profiling in the Madison police force. Below, the strategies we present are taken directly from this publication, which the authors were kindly willing to share with UBP.

Again, before learning the strategies to reduce bias, you must become aware of your bias, how it exists, and when you might act with bias. In the experimental study, participants began by taking the IAT and then learning about the accuracy of the test and common questions about its validity. Then participants were then shown examples of how unconscious bias affects real people in negative ways. Lastly, they are taught the strategies to reduce unconscious bias.

Please don’t skip any of these critical steps, or the strategies may not be effective.

When done right, after repeated practice, using these strategies will become easier, while reducing your automatic bias!

To help explain the strategies, we’ll use this scenario as an example: “You are approaching the conference center for your society’s annual meeting, and are walking towards a tall Black man carrying a duffel bag. At first glance, you assume he is homeless and might ask you for money. You feel nervous, and cross the street to avoid contact. Later, you see him at one of your sessions, and realize the man is actually a prominent young scientist in your field. The duffel bag was full of items for the Society’s exhibit hall booth.”

  1. Stereotype replacement. This strategy can be used in two contexts: when you detect stereotypic portrayals of Blacks in your environment, and when you detect a stereotypic response within yourself.  After you detect the influence of a stereotype, this strategy involves:

First: Labeling the response or portrayal as stereotypical.

Second: Evaluating the situation to determine how the response or portrayal occurred and how it might be prevented in the future.

Third: Replacing the stereotypical response or portrayal with one that is non-stereotypical. In our example, you could have used this technique after you saw the Black man by recognizing that your feelings of tension were partly from stereotypes linking Black men to poverty and criminality.  You could have then labeled your response as stereotypical, recognized that you jumped to a quick assumption, and replace your feelings of tension with calmer feelings.

  1. Counterstereotypic examples. A second thing you can do after a stereotype has been detected is to think of examples of either famous or personally known people that show the stereotype to be inaccurate. For example, while watching a movie that portrays Black people as unintelligent, you could think of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Barack Obama, Neil deGrasse Tyson, or intelligent, personally known Black friends or acquaintances.  Thinking of counter-stereotypic people provides concrete examples that demonstrate the inaccuracy of stereotypes.

In our example, upon seeing the Black man, you could think about positive examples of Black people who are neither impoverished nor dangerous criminals, like Barack Obama.  Or, you could think of a friend or acquaintance that counters Black stereotypes.

  1. Individuating instead of generalizing. Using a stereotype involves generalizing a set of characteristics to all members of a particular group.  This generalization leads people to ignore the individual characteristics of each person within that racial group, leading to inaccurate and faulty conclusions.

Individuating involves going beyond racial categories by attending to the individual characteristics of others.  Gathering this individual information allows you to get to know others on a personal basis and thus make judgments on the basis of their personal, rather than group, characteristics.

Individuating does not involve ignoring race or being “color blind.” For many racial minorities, racial identity and culture are an important part of life.  Being color blind ignores and denies the importance of racial identity and culture.  Individuating involves recognizing that race is just one facet of other people that makes each person unique.

In our example, you could have used this technique by paying more attention to the Black man’s clothing and recognizing that he was wearing nice shoes and other nice clothing.  This information would have indicated that assumptions based on stereotypes are inaccurate.

  1. Perspective Taking. Perspective taking involves imagining what it would feel like to be in another person’s situation.  By using this strategy, you can imagine how it would feel to have your abilities called into question or to be viewed as lazy and potentially violent on the basis of race.  This strategy can be used either proactively, without any prompting from outside sources, or reactively, after a stereotypic response or portrayal has been detected.  Perspective taking, especially perspective taking that occurs after the detection of a stereotypic response or portrayal, is very useful in assessing the emotional impact of stereotyping on others.

In our example, you could have used this strategy by thinking about what it would feel like to have others assume that you were dangerous or homeless based on your race.  This strategy may help you realize the unfairness of automatic race-based expectations and assumptions.

  1. Increasing opportunities for contact. You may find that you don’t have much of a chance to interact with Black people.  You can make up for this lack of opportunities by actively seeking situations where you are likely to have positive interactions with Black people.  You can do this by taking particular classes, joining particular clubs, and / or participating in particular events.  Seeking out interactions will allow you to meet Black people who disconfirm stereotypes.

In addition to seeking personal contact with Black people, you can modify your “media diet” by watching movies, TV, and news that portray Black people in non-stereotypical ways.

This strategy does not transfer directly to our example.  However, if you had previously made an effort to make Black friends and acquaintances, you would have had more positive examples of Black people that counter popular stereotypes to draw upon when using the counter-stereotypic examples strategy, for example.

Final thoughts:

Although we described the 5 strategies separately, practicing one strategy can make practicing the others easier.  For example, when seeking opportunities for contact with Black people, you can get to know Black people that you can use as counter-stereotypic examples.  Likewise, individuating others by attending to their personal characteristics can help people identify situations in which they might otherwise have had stereotypes come to mind, allowing the replacement of those stereotypes with counter-stereotypic thoughts.

Check back soon to our page, Changing Your Media Diet, for lists of recommended movies, tv, books, and more, that don’t reinforce stereotypes. We hope these lists will make it fun and easy to follow one of the 5 strategies to reduce bias!