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A New Approach to Implicit Bias Training

Using cognitive dissonance to defeat systemic racism.

Anna Shvets/Pexels
Source: Anna Shvets/Pexels

by Berit Brogaard and Dimitria E. Gatzia

In recent decades, many schools, government agencies, corporations, and law enforcement agencies have implemented implicit bias training to counteract systemic racism and microaggression. Unfortunately, implicit bias training has not been successful in reducing, much less eliminating, systemic racism and microaggression.

The failure of implicit bias training is partly due to the fact that when our unconscious biases influence our actions, we are not aware of it. In fact, we often think that we have good reasons for behaviors that are in fact bigoted.

Say a police officer with unconscious biases against blacks routinely pulls over black drivers in expensive cars. If questioned about her action, she will most likely provide what she thinks is a good reason—say, a rise in car thefts in the area. Little does she know on a conscious level, however, that her action is the result of her unconscious belief that black men are criminals.

Because we don't know on a conscious level when our unconscious biases control our behavior, learning about the prevalence of our unconscious biases causing bigotry and microaggression does not by itself translate into a method we can use to eliminate our racist actions.

Implicit bias training, however, typically goes beyond presenting evidence of bias-driven bigotry and microaggression.

A common form of implicit bias training asks participants to start paying close attention to their inclinations and behaviors and to consciously refrain from engaging in behaviors that may be bigoted. Say you are in the habit of asking people of color where they are from. By consciously monitoring your inclinations and behaviors, you can stop yourself the next time you are inclined to ask.

However, while this monitor-your-behavior approach can reduce our bias-driven bigotry and microaggression in the short term, it does not typically result in long-term change. How then do we implement long-term change?

In previous work, we have argued that to achieve long-term change, implicit bias training should make use of the very mechanisms that drive our bias-driven bigotry and microaggression.

One mechanism that underlies bias-driven racism is cognitive dissonance. Racist actions and microaggressions that occur as a result of implicit biases are often unconsciously racially motivated, even when our conscious attitudes are egalitarian. We are thus plagued by a distressing conflict between our covert racist intentions and our overt egalitarian beliefs. This kind of conflict is also known as cognitive dissonance. While we aren’t aware of the source of this distress, cognitive dissonance theory predicts that we nevertheless will engage in dissonance-reducing strategies. This makes us inclined to confabulate a description of our action in non-racial terms.

Consider again the police officer who routinely pulls over black drivers riding expensive cars, but not white drivers in similar vehicles. The officer consciously sees herself as treating black and white drivers equally. However, she unconsciously believes that black men are criminals, and she is unconsciously motivated to act on this implicit belief. There is thus cognitive dissonance between her covert racist intentions and her overt egalitarian attitudes. To reduce the dissonance, she confabulates a good reason for her action: the rise in car theft in the area.

But if we engage in confabulation to resolve our cognitive dissonance when we act on our implicit biases, then it should also be possible to create cognitive dissonance situations that reduce bias-driven bigotry and microaggression.

Empirical evidence suggests that this is indeed the case. For example, studies have shown that doing someone we dislike a favor makes us like them more (see Brogaard & Gatzia, 2020 for a review). Typically, we agree to do someone a favor when we feel that they deserve it. If we dislike someone but find ourselves in a situation in which we can’t avoid doing them a favor, an inconsistency arises between our having to do them a favor and our dislike of them. Doing a person we dislike a favor would be highly distressing. To reduce the distress of doing them the required favor, we automatically increase our liking of them, thus making us feel less uncomfortable, as we now think they deserve the favor.

These findings suggest a strategy for using cognitive dissonance to help curtail bias-driven racism. We should focus on creating opportunities for us to act in ways that conflict with our unconscious racist beliefs. These opportunities could be as simple as a supervisor requesting that a white employee complete a task for a black coworker or as complex as a college teacher asking her predominantly white students to work on a slavery reparation project.


Brogaard, B & Gatzia, D. E. (2020). Cognitive dissonance and the logic of racism, in The Philosophy and Psychology of Ambivalence: Being of Two Minds, Routledge.

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