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New NCSC report looks at the evolving science of implicit bias

April 28, 2021

With support from the State Justice Institute, the National Center for State Courts (NCSC) prepared The Evolving Science on Implicit Bias for the court community to summarize the current state of the continually maturing science on implicit bias as of March 2021. This report replaces NCSC’s 2012 report, Helping Courts Address Implicit Bias: Resources for Education.

The judiciary is regarded by the public as a legitimate authority largely because of the perception of independence and impartiality. That perception is under threat. During the past turbulent year, public trust in government declined across the globe. As public trust declines, the ability of the judiciary to skillfully and effectively demonstrate the ideals of fairness and impartiality under law becomes ever more critical. In recognition of the need for leadership during such times, on July 30, 2020, the Conference of Chief Justices (CCJ) and the Conference of State Court Administrators (COSCA) passed a resolution “in support of racial equality and justice for all.” The resolution noted, in part, that “courts in many states, with the encouragement, support, and guidance of CCJ and COSCA, have initiated efforts... to identify and address unconscious bias, and facilitate the uncomfortable conversations that arise from the recognition of such bias.”

The terms unconscious bias and implicit bias emerged from research in the psychological and brain sciences. In everyday vernacular, they serve as shorthand labels for the notion widely supported by research evidence that social discrimination is like a virus. It can be easily and rapidly “caught” by a person from the social environment. This infection triggers an immune response. It influences the person’s thinking and behavior in that environment to reinforce existing patterns of social discrimination, often in ways the person does not fully appreciate or understand. Implicit bias both results from and reinforces different forms of inequality at multiple levels of society. Research on implicit biases addresses how they can arise in individual information processing, decision-making, and behavior in ways that reproduce, reinforce, and are reinforced by dynamics that are historical, cultural, institutional and interpersonal in nature. A comprehensive and successful approach to implicit bias intervention must be one that considers the importance of this broader social context and addresses the full array of forces that contribute to observed inequities.

The present report defines commonly used terms originating from the science of implicit bias; explains how the concept of implicit bias fits into broader conversations underway across the country about equity and fairness; and summarizes what is currently known from research in the psychological and brain sciences, including implicit bias strategies generally found to be effective and ineffective. This report concludes with some implications of this knowledge for state court leaders and other court practitioners who seek to better understand and address the reproduction and perpetuation of systemic biases through this lens.

Additional NCSC resources in this area include NCSC's recently created Racial Justice Resource Center, which includes recent state court statements on racial justice. Additionally, NCSC's Court Statistics Project recently released Collecting Race & Ethnicity Data: CSP Data Governance Special Topic discussed in this July 2020 Trending Topics article.

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