Appellate Advocacy Blog

Editor: Tessa L. Dysart
The University of Arizona
James E. Rogers College of Law

Saturday, January 28, 2023

Implicit Bias Challenged, If Not Debunked

In recent years, the concept of implicit bias – the belief that all individuals harbor unconscious biases that affect their choices and actions – has been embraced by many law schools and the American Bar Association. In fact, the ABA passed a resolution requiring law schools to provide some type of bias training. But there is one problem – implicit bias research is deeply flawed and, in fact, so flawed that its validity is now in question.[1] Below is a summary of the flaws in implicit bias theory.

1.    The Implicit Association Test (IAT) is deeply flawed.

The IAT, developed by researchers at Harvard University, purports to measure an individual's implicit biases. The problem is that there is little, if any, evidence that IAT scores actually measure unconscious bias. As one scholar states:

The IAT is impacted by explicit attitudes, not just implicit attitudes, . . . It is impacted by people’s ability to process information quickly on a general level. It is impacted by desires to want to create a good impression. It is impacted by the mood people are in. If the measure is an amalgamation of many things (one of which is purportedly implicit bias), how can we know which of those things is responsible for a (weak) correlation with behavior?[2]

Furthermore, individuals who take the IAT are likely to achieve different scores if they take the IAT multiple times.[3] One commentator explains as follows:

The IAT, it turns out, has serious issues on both the reliability and validity fronts, which is surprising given its popularity and the very exciting claims that have been made about its potential to address racism” … That’s what the research says, at least, and it raises serious questions about how the IAT became such a social-science darling in the first place.[4]

Indeed, “much murkiness surrounds (a) the proper causal explanation for alleged IAT effects, (b) the psychological meaning of IAT scores, [and] (c) the statistical generality and potency of alleged relations between IAT scores and actual behavior.”[5] To be sure, Tony Greenwald, who co-created the IAT, acknowledged that the IAT should not be used to predict biased behavior, stating that the IAT is only “good for predicting individual behavior in the aggregate, and the correlations are small.”[6] Put simply, the “IAT provides little insight into who will discriminate against whom, and provides no more insight than explicit measures of bias.”[7]

2.    There is insufficient evidence that implicit bias – or results on the IAT – predicts biased behavior.

Empirical studies suggest that implicit biases do not necessarily cause biased behavior. As one commentator explains:

Researchers from the University of Wisconsin at Madison, Harvard, and the University of Virginia examined 499 studies over 20 years involving 80,859 participants that used the IAT and other, similar measures. They discovered two things: One is that the correlation between implicit bias and discriminatory behavior appears weaker than previously thought. They also conclude that there is very little evidence that changes in implicit bias have anything to do with changes in a person’s behavior. These findings, they write, ‘produce a challenge for this area of research.’[8]

Importantly, these researchers examined “63 studies that explicitly considered a link between changes in bias and changes in actions . . . [but] they found no evidence of a causal relationship.”[9]

3.    There is no way to quantify the impact of implicit bias on biased behavior, particularly given the presence of explicit          biases.

Assuming arguendo that implicit bias exists, there is no reliable way to quantify its relationship to biased behavior, if such a relationship even exists. For example, how can one distinguish between explicit and implicit biases? And how can scholars quantify or measure the impact of implicit biases when explicit bias has a demonstrable relationship to biased behavior?

These and other issues have led some scholars to question the validity of implicit bias as a predictor of biased behavior: As one scholar states:

Almost everything about implicit bias is controversial in scientific circles. It is not clear, for instance, what most implicit bias methods actually measure; their ability to predict discrimination is modest at best; their reliability is low; early claims about their power and immutability have proven unjustified.[10]

Resolving these issues in an intellectually honest manner is critical to determining whether implicit bias bears any relationship to biased behavior.

 4.    Implicit bias training is ineffective.

Not surprisingly, implicit bias training is not effective in reducing biased behavior. For example, a study in the United Kingdom concluded as follows:

[A] 2017 meta-analysis of 494 previous studies of racial sensitivity training programmes found that ‘changes in measured implicit bias are possible, but those changes do not necessarily translate into changes in explicit bias or behaviour’. The Equality and Human Rights Commission published its findings in 2018, stating that ‘the evidence for [unconscious bias training’s] ability effectively to change behaviour is limited’ and that it may cause a ‘backfiring’ effect, actually making people more biased. And last year the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (the UK’s main HR professional body) said ‘unconscious bias training has no sustained impact on behaviour’.[11] 

Indeed, “while implicit bias trainings are multiplying, few rigorous evaluations of these programs exist,” the fact remains that “to date, none of these interventions has been shown to result in permanent, long-term reductions of implicit bias scores or, more importantly, sustained and meaningful changes in behavior (i.e., narrowing of racial/ethnic clinical treatment disparities."[12]

Of course, these facts have not stopped the American Bar Association from requiring law schools to conduct training on implicit bias, a proposal that was rightfully met with resistance from established scholars.[13] Perhaps this is because most law faculties are so overwhelmingly liberal that groupthink, rather than critical thinking, precludes a principled assessment of implicit bias’s validity.[14]

Without such an assessment, claims that implicit biases impact biased behavior will continue to lack empirical support. As such, the efficacy of implicit bias training remains dubious.[15]

Ultimately, eradicating bias and discrimination from all facets of society is a legal and moral imperative, but scholars should question seriously whether a focus on alleged implicit biases is an effective way of doing so. And in so doing, scholars should be committed to intellectual honesty to ensure that their own biases do not influence their findings.


[1] Lee Jussim, 12 Reasons to be Skeptical of Common Claims About Implicit Bias (March 28, 2022), available at: 12 Reasons to Be Skeptical of Common Claims About Implicit Bias | Psychology Today

[2] See Adam Lamparello, The Flaws of Implicit Bias and the Need for Empirical Research in Legal Scholarship and in Legal Education, available at: The Flaws of Implicit Bias -- and the Need for Empirical Research in Legal Scholarship and in Legal Education by Adam Lamparello :: SSRN.

[3] See The Spectator, The Dangers of Unconscious Bias Training (Aug. 15, 2020), available at: The dangers of unconscious bias training | The Spectator

[4]  Harvard Embraces Debunked ‘Implicit Bias’ Test that Labels You a Racist, (Jan. 22, 2020), available at: Harvard Embraces Debunked 'Implicit Bias' Test that Labels You a Racist (

[5] German Lopez, For Years, This Popular Test Measured Anyone’s Racial Bias. But It Might Not Work After All, VOX (Mar. 7, 2017, 7:30 AM), (quoting New York University Professor James Jaccard).

[6] Id.

[7] Tom Bartlett, Can We Really Measure Implicit Bias? Maybe Not, CHRON. OF HIGHER EDUC. (Jan. 5, 2017),

[8] Id.

[9] Brandie Jefferson, Change the Bias, Change the Behavior? Maybe Not, WASH. UNIV. IN ST. LOUIS NEWSROOM (Aug. 1, 2019),

[10] Lee Jussim, Mandatory Implicit Bias Training Is a Bad Idea, PSYCH. TODAY (Dec. 2, 2017),

[11] Lewis Feilder, The Dangers of Unconscious Bias Training (Aug. 15, 2020), available at: The dangers of unconscious bias training | The Spectator

[12] See Tiffany L. Green & Nao Hagiwara, The Problem with Implicit Bias Training Aug. 28, 2020), available at: The Problem with Implicit Bias Training - Scientific American

[13] See, e.g., Karen Sloan, U.S. Law Students to Receive Anti-Bias Training After ABA Passes New Rule (February 14, 2022), available at:   U.S. law students to receive anti-bias training after ABA passes new rule | Reuters

[14] See Michael Conklin, Political Ideology and Law School Rankings: Measuring the Conservative Penalty and Liberal Bonus, 2020 U. Ill. L. Rev. Online 178, 179 (2020) As Professor Conklin explains:

It was not until 2015 that a robust analysis of law school ideological diversity was published (hereinafter “2015 study”). Before this, it was already well known that law school professors were disproportionately liberal—both when compared to the public at large and when compared to the overall legal profession. A study using 2013 data found that only 11% of law school professors were Republicans, compared to 82% who were Democrats. Not only do conservatives find it difficult to gain admittance into legal academia, but those who do find that they are effectively barred from the more prestigious topics, such as constitutional law and federal courts, and are instead relegated to topics such as law and economics.

[15] See Green and Hagiwara, supra note 12.

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