Why Unconscious Bias Training Does Not Work

Unconscious bias training is very popular. Every organisation that is keen to take action on diversity and inclusion seems to start with unconscious bias training.

Personally I have never been a fan of those programmes, and scientific evidence is now indicating that I am right and that unconscious bias training is unlikely to have the desired impact. Participants in the training do become more aware of their unconscious biases, but they don’t change their behaviour.

Why Unconscious Bias Training Does Not Work

Linked to negative feelings

The reason I have never been a fan of unconscious bias training is that – as a trainer – I know that positivity works. Learning sticks when people laugh, feel good and have exciting experiences. However, unconscious bias training typically makes participants feel guilty. Especially white men of course, as all biases seem to be in their favour.

Doesn’t lead to action

I also find that unconscious bias programmes don’t lead to action. In most unconscious bias training programmes, people learn to ‘be aware’ of their bias when taking decisions. But no concrete actions suggested, and it’s therefor very easy for participants to forget about it and continue the same old behaviour.

Awareness is not the same as behaviour change

In her excellent book ‘What Works’ Iris Bohnet describes how most unconscious bias training programmes are not evaluated systematically. As a result there is very little valid research on the impact of the programmes. In the research that is available unconscious bias training is shown to have a limited impact. It does make people more aware of their bias, but studies show that even when people are aware of their bias they can’t suppress it.

In fact in some cases it is shown to make the bias worse. This is very human and is called moral licensing. I do it too. I have just started a fitness programme, and have noticed I allow myself more daytime snacks now. I feel good about myself, so I give myself a moral license to indulge. With unconscious bias training you see something similar. People think, ‘Oh well, I have done the unconscious bias training – ticked that box, done my bit for diversity – so now I can go back to normal.’

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