UW-Madison Lab Uses Scientifically Proven Method for Overcoming Unconscious Bias

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The only time Will Cox, PhD, sounds more excited than when he’s talking about the University of Wisconsin at Madison’s Prejudice and Intergroup Relations Lab’s successes is when he’s describing the next prejudice puzzle he and his fellow researchers aim to solve.

Will Cox
Will Cox

Cox is an assistant scientist and principal investigator in the lab run by Patricia Devine, PhD, who in the late 1980s first identified what she called “implicit bias” or “unintentional bias” — subconscious prejudice that affects people’s decisions and actions even though they are not aware of it. “I felt like I was this lone voice in the field saying ‘you can trust what people say about their values,’ but everybody was incredibly suspicious. There was this clarion call to not trust people’s verbal reports because they are going to lie because it is socially acceptable to be non-prejudiced. I thought that was incredibly cynical,” Devine said in a UW news article. “It turns out that the work I was doing changed the direction of the field. It caused people to step up and take notice.”

Almost 20 years later, in 2008, Devine and her colleagues decided it was time to do more than understand prejudice and discrimination — it was time to start fixing it. The intervention that Devine, Cox, and their team designed, called the Prejudice Habit-Breaking Intervention, teaches participants about the concept of unintentional bias, its origins, and how to become more aware of it personally. After being introduced to these concepts, participants are taught a number of strategies for overcoming their unintentional biases.

“[Prejudice] is the legacy of our socialization experiences. We all learn these stereotypes and have these biases at the ready whether we condone them or not, whether we think they are good or not, and as a result, [our] immediate reaction is a biased one,” Devine explained. “If you are going to respond in nonbiased ways, you have to gain control or override the automatically activated stereotypic response and instead respond in thoughtful deliberate ways that might represent your personal values.”

[Photo above: Students, faculty, and staff from UW-Madison’s Prejudice and Intergroup Relations Lab]

Cox says that what sets the Prejudice Habit-Breaking Intervention apart from other methods of overcoming bias is scientifically proven long-term results. “Most bias [or] diversity interventions are not based in science and are not evaluated rigorously,” he says. “When they are put to the test, the evidence indicates that at best, they do nothing. And in many cases, they make bias issues worse.”

Devine and Cox’s results, on the other hand, have been striking. Over the course of two years, they did a study in which half of the STEM departments on the UW-Madison campus participated in workshops run by the lab. Prior to the study, only 33 percent of these departments’ new hires were women. After participating in the Prejudice Habit-Breaking Intervention, female hires increased to 47 percent in participating departments — close to the 50 percent mark Cox says one would expect if bias were altogether removed. In contrast, the control departments that did not take part in the workshops maintained a female hiring rate of 33 percent.

The Prejudice and Intergroup Relations Lab’s current research with UW-Madison undergraduate students, while not yet complete, is revealing that those who participate in the intervention workshops gain a greater sense of responsibility for reducing bias on campus. Cox says one of the survey questions they ask students before and after participating is how much they agree with the statement “It is my responsibility to speak out against bias on campus.” After completing the workshop, he says “students are more likely to say that it’s their responsibility to address bias rather than thinking someone else should address it or [that] it’s not their business.”

Cox and his colleagues are following up with these students to assess their involvement in campus initiatives. In addition, the lab is conducting a study of graduate students in which it plans to evaluate the quality of their interactions with peers of different backgrounds following completion of the training.

Katharine Scott, a graduate student working in the Prejudice and Intergroup Relations Lab, says she hasn’t been at UW-Madison long enough to have personally witnessed long-term climate change. However, working in the lab and facilitating trainings has helped her understand and combat her own unintentional biases as well as improve her ability to confront others’ prejudice when she encounters it. “I find myself often thinking about how stereotypical assumptions would make someone of a stereotyped group feel and how I can adjust my behavior to improve the experiences of [those] groups,” she says.

According to Cox, research definitively shows that the Prejudice Habit-Breaking Intervention is creating behavior change. What he and Devine are not certain about is what that behavior change looks like exactly. For example, with the STEM department study, Cox says that they know their workshops led to some sort of transformation that ultimately resulted in more women being hired. What they are still unclear about is what specifically changed: Did hiring committees start talking more openly about gender? Were female candidates more apt to accept positions with departments where the climate was more welcoming?

In a similar vein, Devine and Cox are tracking behavioral changes in graduate students who have participated in workshops to see whether they will engage more in campus activities that promote diversity and inclusion.

Even as Devine, Cox, and their colleagues continue to fine-tune the Prejudice Habit-Breaking Intervention, they’re working hard to implement their workshops and trainings both on and off UW-Madison’s campus, tailoring the sessions for teachers and even police officers. Cox says the core principles of the intervention are fairly universal: It’s about acknowledging and overcoming prejudice.

As Devine has explained to Scott, bias is something that has to be “put on the table” — insight that Scott says has been invaluable in her research and personal life. “I am now confident that I can confront and discuss bias in a nonthreatening, productive way,” she says.

Regarding whether she thinks the Prejudice Habit-Breaking Intervention workshops and trainings Devine and Cox have led on campus have improved the ways in which UW-Madison students and faculty interact with each other, Scott is optimistic. “I believe that opening lines of communication about issues of bias and providing students and faculty with a language to discuss these issues can have tremendous impact,” she says. Devine and Cox plan to track the intervention’s results to see whether the data prove her right.●

Alice Pettway is a contributing writer for INSIGHT Into Diversity.