Implicit Bias and Its Application in the Life of a Lawyer.

Author:Billoo, Yasir
Position:Special Section: Diversity & Inclusion

Early in my career, while I was litigating in Arizona, I met men and women from a local Native American tribe who believed it was disrespectful to look someone in the eyes during a conversation. Before I learned about their beliefs, every time I met with witnesses who were members of that tribe, I thought they were being untruthful. Later I found out they thought I was the one being untruthful because I was looking directly at them and trying to make eye contact. This is implicit bias.

The basic concept of "implicit bias" has been studied by academics for decades. Implicit bias does not involve overt prejudices, but rather learned biases gained from life experiences. These are ideas and preconceptions that reside just below the surface in our subconscious and guide our daily decisions and routines. Everyone has implicit biases, which range from largely benign preconceptions to extremely damaging prejudices.

Because the bias is implicit, as opposed to explicit, many people refer to it as a "hidden" bias. But, in the practical sense, it is not hidden because it appears in our normal daily tasks. Some biases are useful and need not be discarded. Believing all sharks are dangerous, for example, is a stereotype and an implicit bias, but also a healthy attitude for most individuals to hold. But any bias that reduces an individual to a simple idea or characteristic is likely wrong and harmful. For example, if you hear the word "religion," does that have a positive or negative connotation? If you hear the term "Asian," what image conjures in your mind? These are all examples of implicit bias, and each implicit bias affects our daily decisionmaking.

As lawyers, self-reflecting on implicit biases is particularly important. It is worth considering which of the implicit biases we hold are harmful, particularly to those individuals we come across in our professional lives. For example, if you implicitly believe religious people are not rational, how will that affect the way you treat your overtly religious clients? How will that affect the way a judge rules for or against a specific issue involving an overtly religious litigant?

The most widely used measure of implicit bias is the Implicit Association Test (IAT), a test developed by social psychologists Anthony Greenwald and Mahzarin Banaji in the 1990s. (1) The premise of the IAT is straightforward. If two concepts are closely associated or linked in the test-taker's mind, they should be easier to...

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