Understanding Implicit Bias: A Toolkit

What is implicit bias?

Implicit (or unconscious) bias occurs when individuals use information from experience, media, culture or other individuals to organize people into social categories according to salient traits like age, gender, race, ethnicity or social role and then utilize these categories unconsciously in decision making or behavior. Thus, hearing descriptions like “a large Black man” activates a meaning beyond physical character that has been shaped by feelings and expectations molded by experience with social categories, media, culture and information from others. It is the unconscious activation of this supplemental meaning that biases how people respond to such a description (Kang, 2009).

Could I be racially biased and not be aware of it?

Our attitudes and behavior towards others are often guided by unconscious thoughts, feelings, and judgements that we have and may not be aware of and these can lead us to act in ways that are biased or prejudiced without knowing it. Research shows that this is especially true when we are in a rush or have to make quick decisions. When we are unaware of how these thoughts, feelings, and judgements influence our behavior and attitudes we make ourselves more vulnerable to bias, racial or otherwise.

How can I become more aware of biases that may be influencing my own attitudes and behavior toward others?

In 1998 a team of researchers developed a psychological survey designed to assess the ties individuals have between concepts like race and other concepts like criminal behavior. Since it was first developed it has been widely used in social and psychological research. It is available for individuals to learn more about their own biases here.

Why is it important to be aware of how unconscious bias works?

Because the processes involved in biasing decisions and behaviors are engaged at the unconscious level with our own prejudices and any stereotypes (thoughts, feelings, and expectations) we might have, all individuals are liable to its influence. This means that even well-intentioned individuals who believe in fairness and equity are prone to behave in ways that can create disparity, as documented by research involving police officers, hiring managers, teachers, judges, and even doctors.

Learning about unconscious biases is also important because it helps shed light on the institutionalized and structural inequalities that reinforce the learning of bias-inducing associations.

What can I do if I have concerns about bias in the policing of my community?

Individuals concerned about racial and other types of bias affecting the fair policing of their communities can have their voices heard in a number of ways:

  • Join a peaceful protest or demonstration,
  • Ask about your community’s policies on chokeholds, de-escalation, & bias training,
  • Ask about the selection process and training of your community’s field training officers,
  • Contact your local congress members and urge them to sponsor or support legislation that seeks to reduce the role of bias in policing and improves accountability
        • Find your Sate's Representatives
        • Find your State's Senators

  • Make a donation to groups that support policing and justice reform
        • National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP)
        • American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU)
        • Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC)
What initiatives have other law enforcement agencies undertaken to limit the effects of bias in policing?

Many police departments and government officials have teamed up with researchers and outside organizations to find ways of reducing the impact bias has on policing and improving accountability:


Kang, J. (2009). Implicit bias: A primer for courts. Williamsburg, VA: National Center for State Courts.

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