Thursday, June 07, 2018

Unconscious bias training a waste of time – 7 reasons why Starbucks training will not work

Exclusive: Unconscious bias training to be scrapped after review finds it has little effect

Nearly 170,000 staff across the civil service have taken part in sessions in the past five years, at an estimated cost of £370,000 - 14 December 2020

Racism and sexism are serious problems but not all training efforts are serious solutions. The latest fad is training courses that purport to tackle ‘unconscious bias'. (Note that I'm not attacking training on conscious racism and sexism, only the idea that training should focus on the unconscious). Starbucks led the charge, largely as a PR campaign to protect their share price,  but it is everywhere. There is something truly creepy about HRs move on the unconscious. Since when did it become acceptable to see an employees ‘unconscious’ as an addressable area for ‘retraining’. This is far worse than the Ponzi scheme that is Myers-Briggs. There are serious problems with ‘unconscious bias’ courses.

1. Unconscious is wrong target
Apart from the dedicated racist, few will admit to being racist in surveys. Many may hold light or even strong views on race without admitting it to anyone, certainly not researchers, who would almost certainly be seen as judgemental. This has led L and D to turn to the unconscious. Big mistake. Explicit, conscious racism and sexism, may actually be the true focus for training, not the diversion of ‘unconscious bias’, on the basis of seriously flawed psychometric tests. 

2. Not measuring unconscious bias at all
The Banaji and Greenwald IAT (Implicit Association Test), created in 1994, is one of a number that are being foisted upon millions of employees. Just because people select words from pairs does not mean that this taps into their unconscious. We need to send several cannonballs over the bow of the supposed ship sailing into the uncharted sea of the unconscious. Just because someone can’t explicitly explain something does not mean that it has its origins in the unconscious. There are plenty of alternative explanations with more plausible causality. You may simply be registering familiarity (not bias) in matching words with images. Alternatively you may be using conscious but instantaneous recognition, not the unconscious, to link the words and images. As Tony Greenwald, one of the creators of IAT said,
"I see most implicit bias training as window dressing... After 10 years working on this stuff and nobody reporting data, I think the logical conclusions is that if it was working, we would have heard about it."

3. Wrong language
In fact, the mutual exclusivity of conscious and unconscious bias is far from proven and psychologists are wary of even using the word. One can add the prefix ‘un’ to the word ‘conscious’, and assume this is something clear, the ‘unconscious’, a place where hidden biases are stored in little Pandora’s boxes. But the ‘unconscious’ is problematic in psychology. What is the difference between a memory and an unconscious event? If you read the literature in this field you will find the word ‘unconscious’ strangely absent. Psychologists tend to use the terms ‘implicit’ and ‘explicit’, which cuts loose from the terminology of psychotherapy to bring in a wider range of phenomena. Psychologists really are wary of this binary opposition between unconscious and conscious - but not HR. Of course, selling a course called ‘Implicit beliefs’ may not bring in the expected sales.

4. Unreliable
Reliability matters in tests. You don’t want a test that gets very different results on same person when they retake the test. Guess what? The IAT test is unreliable, so it should NOT be used as a test, as there is not enough evidence that it predicts your behaviour. To be precise, the desired retest reliability should be above 0.7. It is, in fact, 0.44 for racism and 0.5 for IAT tests overall.

5. Not predictive
Even if we assume the unconscious has some status, the causality of beliefs and behaviour can still be studied. Here’s the really bad news - four separate meta-analyses show weak predictive behaviour from such tests. This is a real problem, as even if one counters the unconscious bias, as it has almost no causal effect, all that work is largely pointless.

6. Doesn’t change behaviour
Even the people who work in this area warn against the inference that reducing unconscious bias reduces racist or sexist behaviour. In fact, a meta-study in 2017, that looked at 494 previous studies, showed no evidence for the reduction of unconscious bias having an effect on biased behaviour. Let’s be clear, if true, then what is claimed by those who sell this training and much of the training is quite simply a waste of time. 

7. Record of failure
The world is littered with courses on diversity, racism and sexism. The world is NOT littered with evidence that it works. Major studies from Dobbin, Kalev and Kochan show that diversity training does not increase productivity and may, in fact, produce a backlash. Most don’t know if it works as evaluations are as rare as unicorns. Thomas Kochan, Professor of management at MIT’s Sloan School of Management’s five year study had previously come to the same conclusions, "The diversity industry is built on sand," he concluded. "The business case rhetoric for diversity is simply naive and overdone. There are no strong positive or negative effects of gender or racial diversity on business performance." Harvard’s Frank Dobbin conducted the first major, systematic study of diversity programmes across 708 private sector companies, using employment data and surveys onemployment practices. His research concluded that, “Practices that target managerial bias through…diversity training, show virtually no effect.” Dobbins research went further. “Research to date suggests that… training often generates a backlash.” Many other studies show similar conclusions (Kidder et al 2004, Rynes and Rosen 1995, Sidanias et al 2001, Naff and Kellough 2003, Benedict et al 1998, Nelson et al 1996). Yet we persevere with the idea that ‘training’ is the answer to these serious problems.

A way forwared
Going back to the main point of this article, training in ‘unconscious bias’ seems to be yet another Ponzi scheme, that fits nicely with the zeitgeist. At best it is a clear example of enormous overreach, at worse falsely accusatory and a waste of time. My conclusion is that if the identification of unconscious bias is a waste of time, as is training around that concept, that still leaves us with conscious bias. All is not lost. Starbucks need to focus on conscious racism, not psychobabble.

Who better to turn to than the word’s acknowledged expert in ‘bias’, Daniel Kahneman, who won the Nobel Prize for his work in the field. His book ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’ is essential reading if you are interested in how bias works in the mind. Note that if you’re interested in less academic book that explains it in a more readable form ‘The Undoing Project’ by Michael Lewis, is excellent. Coming back to Kahneman, in the last two pages of the book he addresses the issue of combatting bias and starts by saying that…

System 1 is not readily educable”. 

So don’t look to changing System 1, and thinking that you can eliminate unconscious bias, where the supposed ‘unconscious bias is said to exist. His recommendation is…

The way to block errors in System 1 is simple in principle: recognise the signs that you are in a cognitive minefield, slow down, and ask for refinforcement  from System 2.”

This is good advice, so how do we do this? Kahneman suggests that organisations use process and “orderly procedures”, such as “useful checklists… reference forecasts… premortems”. I agree. Much is to be gained through organisational checks and balances, not falsely accusatory training based on unreliable, supposedly diagnostic tools.

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