Character  &  Context

The Science of Who We Are and How We Relate
Editors: Mark Leary, Shira Gabriel, Brett Pelham
Oct 11, 2019

Unconscious and Unaccountable: What Happens When We Attribute Discrimination to Implicit Bias?

by Natalie Daumeyer
One student being talked about behind her back while other students gossip

Lately, the terms “unconscious” and “implicit” bias have been getting a great deal of attention in the news and popular culture when prejudice and discrimination are discussed. Generally, these terms refer to the tendency for people to associate a group of people with a set of stereotypes or attitudes without being aware that they are doing so. For example, you may make automatic, unconscious inferences about other people based on your knowledge of their race, nationality, marital status, or preference for certain kinds of music.

Researchers often determine whether people have unconscious biases through tests that measure how quickly people associate a group of people (such as women) with a trait or category (such as mathematics). For example, an Implicit Association Test often reveals that people are faster to pair men with science terms (Chemistry) and women with liberal arts terms (English). Furthermore, these implicit associations can affect people’s behavior—for example, leading them to hire men over equally qualified women for job positions in the sciences—without even being aware that this unconscious bias is affecting their decision.

In the past couple of years, psychologists have been trying to educate the public about these subtle yet pernicious biases. Indeed, maybe you have heard or read about implicit bias somewhere before. This attempt to raise awareness about implicit bias was meant to encourage people to understand how they may act in discriminatory ways without realizing it. And, making people aware of implicit bias might lessen its impact. But, could teaching people that behavior can be affected by implicit biases also have a downside? My research suggests yes. When people believe discrimination was caused by implicit bias, they hold those who behave in discriminatory ways less accountable for their behavior.

In this research, my colleagues and I had participants read evidence that one group of people (such as doctors or police officers) discriminated against another group of people (such as elder people or Black Americans). For example, one of these articles explained that recent research determined that doctors’ bias against older people affects their patient care. They read that doctors who have a strong bias against older people spend less time with elderly patients and exhibit more dismissive body language toward them, which affects whether patients get the care they need.

Critically, in these articles, half of the participants read that the discrimination was due to implicit bias—that is, due to biased attitudes and beliefs that the doctors were unaware they held. The other half of the participants were led to believe that the discrimination occurred due to typical, explicit bias—that is, it was due to biased attitudes and beliefs that the doctors were aware they held.

We then asked participants how much they thought the doctors (or police officers) should be held accountable for their discriminatory behavior. When they read that the discrimination was due to implicit rather than explicit bias, participants held the doctors and police officers less accountable for their behavior. Further, participants also thought the perpetrators should be punished less for their discriminatory behavior when it was due to implicit bias.

Note that in these studies, the behavior was the same and always resulted in the same outcomes. The only difference was whether the article said that the behavior was caused by implicit or explicit bias. What’s perhaps the most concerning is that people held others less accountable even when the outcomes of the discrimination were particularly harmful (such as premature death for elderly patients).

What is it about discrimination that arises from implicit bias that makes it different from discrimination borne of explicit bias? Because implicit biases are held unconsciously, people may believe that their effect on our behavior is unintentional. Intentional, deliberate discrimination certainly seems worse than unintentional, unconscious discrimination. However, it is important here to distinguish awareness of biases from awareness of behaviors. Even if people are unaware of their biases, they are still aware of their discriminatory behavior.

Imagine a child who runs recklessly around the house and breaks some fine China. The child may not have intended to break the plate, but he also wasn’t trying not to break anything. He was aware of his reckless behavior. A similar idea can be applied here. Regardless of their unconscious biases, people can make an intentional effort not to discriminate. For example, people can put in an effort to be aware of any differences in their behavior toward men and women or toward White and Black people to ensure they are treating everyone the same regardless of race, gender, age, sexual orientation, and other characteristics. In other words, we are still responsible for our behavior, even when it is driven by implicit biases.

Ultimately, whether or not a person meant to discriminate does not change much for the person who experienced the discrimination. Discrimination is hurtful. It has psychological, physical, and even financial costs, such as missing out on promotions or being denied premier loans. Perhaps, instead of holding people less accountable for discrimination attributed to implicit bias, we should be thoughtful about whether or not implicit bias was the cause and what we can do to discourage discriminatory behavior caused by such biases.

For Future Reading:

Daumeyer, N. M., Onyeador, I. N., Brown, X., & Richeson, J. A. (2019). Consequences of attributing discrimination to implicit vs. explicit bias. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 84,

Cameron, C. D., Payne, B. K., & Knobe, J. (2010). Do theories of implicit race bias change moral judgments? Social Justice Research, 23, 272–289.

Redford, L., & Ratliff, K. A. (2016). Perceived moral responsibility for attitude-based discrimination. British Journal of Social Psychology, 55, 279–296.

Simon, S., Moss, A. J., & O’Brien, L. T. (2019). Pick your perspective: Racial group membership and judgments of intent, harm, and discrimination. Group Processes & Intergroup Relations, 22, 215–232.


Natalie Daumeyer is a graduate student at Yale University studying how people make sense of persistent discrimination and inequality.

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Everything that people think, feel, and do is affected by some combination of their personal characteristics and features of the social context they are in at the time. Character & Context explores the latest insights about human behavior from research in personality and social psychology, the scientific field that studies the causes of everyday behaviors.  

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