On October 7, the University of Missouri School of Law hosted an implicit bias information session with law students, led by Missouri psychology professor Laura Scherer. The session was streamed live to the University of Oregon School of Law, where our students were able to watch and submit questions to Missouri via email. It was a wonderful and informative event.

After the session, we called Dr. Scherer from Oregon to ask followup questions specifically about implicit bias and ADR. One of our 2L research assistants, Sam Willette, conducted the interview. The transcript appears below.

For what it’s worth, my initial impressions are that implicit bias is not a new topic in ADR. Indeed, for years ADR scholars have argued that multiple diverse perspectives may be simultaneously true; that self-determination requires self-awareness and skillful facilitation; and that biases affect judgment, trust, and decisionmaking. But the recent conversations around implicit bias provide an opportunity to re-rethink core assumptions around ADR process, informality, neutrality, licensure, and dialogue.

Many thanks to Raphael Gely, to Laura Scherer, and to the University of Missouri School of Law for allowing us to participate in their event. We at Oregon look forward to live-streaming one of our events back to Missouri (though we will have to get our technology in order first; Missouri’s IT staff is incredible).

Interview Transcript

SAM: Dr. Scherer, have any of the studies supporting current understandings of implicit bias been thrown into question given that recently many social psychology experimental findings have been thrown into question?

LAURA: Yes, this is a really important issue. Recently in social psychology, we’ve been going through a “crisis of confidence,” because we’re finding that a lot of published research doesn’t replicate. This is a very important problem, and it’s an exciting time to be a social psychologist, because this is a time of incredible scrutiny of the state of our science, and we’re greatly improving our methods and review process.

That said, one of the most robust findings in social psychology is that people show implicit race bias. For example, people generally associate Black faces with guns, and negative stereotypic words. These associations are activated extremely quickly and automatically upon perception of a face. These are very consistent results and have been found in many labs across the country.

SAM: This is actually switching gears a little bit, but, as you know, in mediation one of the core concepts is neutrality, and, in your view, is neutrality a realistic goal?

LAURA: In answering this question, one important thing to consider is “Who is the perceiver of the neutrality?” Generally speaking I don’t think that neutrality is something that we humans are very good at. We’re always comparing our past experiences to what we’re experiencing now, comparing a given person to the last similar-looking person that we met, and assessing a given person in light of our implicit biases and expectations. These quick comparisons and mental shortcuts allow us to navigate our world very efficiently. The problem is that they often cause us to come to unfair conclusions about other people.

Nonetheless, we can strive to engage in a more fair process in our interactions with others. For example, when interacting with someone who is different from us, we can ask ourselves “How would I feel, and how might this interaction change, if this person was different?” This can help to provide some insight into how our own biases and expectations might be shaping the interaction. This is the kind of insight that we need to have in order to counteract implicit biases.

SAM: It seems like each person’s implicit bias, just like each person’s view of what is true, and important, et cetera, would reflect differences in background and experience. How consistent are stereotypes across individuals?

LAURA: That’s a great question. On average, most people have negative implicit biases against minority and stigmatized groups. For people who are actually a part of these groups, the bias is often reduced but not completely reversed. For example, an African-American individual doing an implicit attitude task about race may actually tend to show implicit bias that’s in the same direction as Whites, but the bias will not be as strong.

On average, what you see is that for members of minority or stigmatized groups, their implicit attitudes appear to be a combination of negative cultural stereotypes, and also their personal experiences which reflect much more positively on the group.

SAM: That is slightly disturbing, but it is definitely interesting. In your talk, which we livecast here at the University of Oregon Law School, you gave some suggestions for what we can do, ourselves, to counteract the effects of implicit bias. What can we do to disrupt the process in others? This seems to be especially important for mediators, who must deal with participants who may be detrimentally affected by implicit bias.

LAURA: One issue is that people don’t want to be told that they are implicitly biased. People tend to see this as an accusation of overt racism and become immediately defensive.

But, interestingly enough, psychologists have found that we are better at perceiving bias in other people than we are at accepting it or perceiving it in ourselves. We all tend to think, “I’m not biased, but clearly everyone else around me is.” As a result, we really don’t like it when people tell us that we’re harboring bias in some kind of implicit or unconscious way. For this reason I would definitely recommend against simply telling people that they are biased. It is not likely to go over well.

One possible way to counteract implicit bias in other people is to educate them about implicit bias with a clear message that this applies to everyone – which is what I tried to do in my talk. This might help people to understand that admitting that they are biased is not admitting personal failure, it’s simply admitting that you – like everyone else – are a human being. Maybe, if you convince people that they possess these biases themselves, then it will help mitigate the effects of that bias in their interpersonal interactions. However, there is very little research on this topic.

SAM: Is that likely because of the thorniness of the people who don’t want to be dictated to about their behavior, like you mentioned, or criticized, perhaps, for their behavior?

LAURA: Yes, people obviously hate to be criticized for their behavior after the fact. However, if we can make them aware of implicit bias before the fact, then this could help to reframe the conversation. Social psychologists have spent the last 20 years doing a very thorough job of documenting these biases and honing measures to assess them, and now the next step is to look into how to mitigate these biases in ourselves, and also to disrupt the process in others.

SAM: Thank you. Our next question is that common beliefs help people relate to each other. These beliefs are also sometimes informed by stereotypes, both positive and negative. Mediators are not robots, but must instead work within culture by facilitating dialogue and forging personal relationships – often appealing to shared values, for example fairness, that are common within the culture. How do we retain the benefits of shared culture while minimizing the negative impacts of biases? Can we?

LAURA: This is a great question, and it’s also a very difficult question to answer. How do we retain the benefits of shared culture but minimize the negative impacts of discrimination? This is something that I think I mentioned at the end of my talk. We need to continue to educate each other about discrimination and bias. But by doing so, we might ironically be educating each other about the stereotypes themselves. One thing that I would like to see is a dialogue about implicit attitudes becoming part of the shared culture.

AILEEN [Program Manager of the Oregon ADR Center]: It seems like you’re saying that it’s a dangerous feedback loop – in trying to educate others about negative stereotypes to try and disrupt those stereotypes, we are thereby exposing them to the stereotypes, and arguably perpetuating them. Even by talking about stereotypes we might be strengthening stereotypes. Is that accurate?

LAURA: Yes, that’s exactly right. I would love to see research on implicit bias become part of shared culture as well, so that even though we can’t get rid of the stereotypes completely, we can all have a shared understanding of how these stereotypes might influence us outside of our awareness.

SAM: It seems like with this last question, and when I’m thinking of it now, that your study is much more nuanced, and unfortunately the biases that we see daily, and how we see them on the media, are not nuanced. It’s kind of these stock images that we see over and over. Is there a way to make the public discussion more nuanced without having to be joined in academia?

LAURA: One of the ways in which I think we can make this discussion more nuanced is to have a shared conversation in our culture in which we accept the fact that we are all humans and share a common flaw. We automatically categorize people as members of broad social groups, we form associations with those social groups, and it takes effort to override those associations and to not make assumptions about individual people. We need to take time to get to know individuals so that we can understand them as individuals rather than just members of social groups. Once we can all accept that these processes occur and are part of our human nature, we might be able to move forward.

SAM: Well, thank you. We are out of questions, but I do like ending on that idea of individuating people. You know, getting to know people is a nice start.

LAURA: Thank you so much for inviting me to do this, and I hope that my answers were helpful.

Jennifer Reynolds is an Assistant Professor at the University of Oregon Law and the Faculty Director of the ADR Center. Teaching civil procedure, conflicts of law, negotiation, and mediation, her research interests include dispute systems design, problem-solving in multiparty scenarios, judicial attitudes toward ADR, and cultural influences and implications of alternative processes. She is also a contributor to ADR Prof Blog.