In a first-of-its-kind move, the California legislature is looking to mandate training for professionals who are tasked with decisions that affect the life and liberty of California residents. Specifically, California legislators will vote on three bills that would require training on unconscious bias for law enforcement officers, medical professionals, judges, and attorneys. The proposed new laws collectively seek to minimize unconscious bias in potentially life-altering situations and seek to identify proactive strategies to reduce or eliminate biased decision-making by these professionals.
A recent Los Angeles Times article, written by Stanford psychology professor Jennifer L. Eberhardt, summarized various aspects of the new laws. Eberhardt is the author of the recently-released book, Biased, and has conducted extensive research on how biased decision-making impacts people in a multitude of ways – from housing and employment to safety and education. In the article, Eberhardt offers insight into how these bills might help stem the tide of biased decision-making.
The Proposed Legislation
The three pending bills include AB241 (unconscious bias training for medical professionals), AB242 (unconscious bias training for judges and attorneys), and AB243 (unconscious bias training for peace officers). All three bills include definitions, examples of unconscious bias, citations to social science research, and statements about the impact the training will have on achieving equality in health, law enforcement and legal proceedings for all Californians, regardless of background.
The fact sheet for AB241 explains that unconscious bias “is the positive or negative perceptions, feelings, and stereotypes that subconsciously impact our comprehension and behaviors and often contributes to discriminatory treatment.”
A fact sheet for AB242 reminds us that unconscious biases “are grounded in a basic human tendency to separate and categorize people into groups.” It goes on to say that “the most common biases are based on a person’s…race, gender, age, ethnicity, social-economic class, disability, weight or other identity factors.”
Finally, a fact sheet for AB243 states that “people can embrace ideas of fairness and equality yet they tend to be subject to stereotypes regarding people they don’t know.”
All three bills delineate the reasons why it is especially important for members of these professions to become more aware of bias, as well as to surface real and lasting solutions.
Getting to the Heart of the Matter
In her article, Eberhardt points out several positive aspects of the proposed laws, including the fact that they seek to identify the root causes of bias.
“Understanding the circumstances that unleash bias can arm organizations to make institutional changes that help deactivate it,” says Eberhardt.
Indeed, a sentiment from a number of corporate and government leaders and employees is that most training courses on this issue fail to look at the underlying causes of bias. Without knowing the causes, it is infinitely more difficult to craft a solution to the problem.
Eberhardt points to research she and other social scientists have conducted related to identifying the triggers for poor decision-making. For instance, Eberhardt has helped police department change policies and practices to eliminate or at least drastically reduce decision-making under unnecessarily stressful circumstances. This (making decisions too quickly), she says, is something research identifies as a trigger for biased decision-making.
The fact sheet for peace officers states that unconscious bias “presents unique challenges to law enforcement.” While there is an acknowledgment that complete elimination of bias might be impossible, it recognizes that “awareness and proper training can make substantial differences.” This is especially important because “trust in law enforcement relies upon people believing that police officers act with fairness and equity.”
In the LA Times article, Eberhardt also points out that the proposed legislation focuses on crafting real-world solutions to the problems created by biased decision-making. With effective training as a base, leaders will be able to, for example, craft mechanisms to slow down decision-making processes so that bias doesn’t negatively affect decision-making.
In fact, Eberhardt explains that one goal of unconscious bias training should be to “reduce the likelihood that ingrained biases will be triggered in high-stakes situations, magnifying racial, economic and health disparities.”
To that end, the fact sheet for AB242 states that “California’s justice system should be at the forefront to improve treatment and outcomes for the underprivileged general public” and states that the new law “would allow court professionals to understand and reduce disparities in the justice system…”
What it All Means
This set of proposed laws in one in a long line of proposed rules that send a clear and strong message: California is committed to creating an inclusive, fair, and level playing field for all residents.
All organizations with a presence in California (or anywhere, really) should take note of the message sent via these proposed laws:
- The importance of providing education that goes beyond mere check-the-box training. A focus on root causes, a tone that inspires unity rather than division, and an emphasis on real-world solutions that can be easily implemented are key factors to include in training.
- Training must allow individuals to explore and strengthen curiosity and empathy skills and that has as its goal true understanding which in turn is much more likely to positively affect behavior.
- The need for a training plan that goes beyond behavior changes at the individual level to have an enterprise-wide benefit. Unconscious bias and inclusion training should be seen as a piece of the larger goal to create workplace cultures that are healthy, inclusive and equitable.
Any employer seeking to improve decision-making at work (thereby improving engagement, loyalty and yes, profitability) would be wise to study the guidelines provided by these proposed laws and make the elimination of bias–conscious and unconscious–a key goal.