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The Promise of Accountability: Countering Racial Bias in Decision-Making


Evidence of racial disparities across a number of important domains, combined with documentation of persisting prejudice and stereotypes disfavoring racial minorities, suggests that decision processes are not immune from the influence of racial bias. The operation of such bias threatens public values of fairness and equality, particularly in contexts where matters of life and liberty are at stake, such as the criminal justice system. Accountability--the requirement of having to justify oneself through the giving of reasons--is a procedural device commonly used by organizations of all kinds (e.g., police departments, prosecutor offices, courts) to improve the quality of decisions.

While scholars and organizations turn to accountability as a strategy to reduce racial bias, the existing evidence justifying this reliance is tenuous at best. As my review of the literature shows, whereas previous research suggests accountability can effectively address a range of cognitive biases under the right conditions, studies focusing on the effects of accountability on intergroup biases have produced mixed results. In some cases, accountability can operate to actually bolster intergroup biases. Further, no known study has directly examined the effect of accountability on implicit (unconscious) racial bias. To avoid the adoption of ineffective or potentially harmful practices, further research is needed on accountability's ability to reduce the influence of racial bias in the decision process.

The current project presents results from three experimental studies testing accountability's capacity to attenuate the effects of explicit and implicit racial bias. Using a case file paradigm, online participants reviewed either a White or racial minority criminal suspect and rendered judgments about the seriousness of the crime, suspect guilt, and the appropriate punishment. Study 1 compared the relative effects of holding decision-makers accountable either for the decision outcome itself (outcome accountability) or for the process used to reach the decision (process accountability). In this study, college students reviewed either a White or Black suspect in a drug possession case. Only limited evidence was found for accountability's ability to address racial bias, with the process accountability manipulation faring marginally better than outcome accountability.

Focusing on different aspects of the justification process, Study 2 examined the effects of having decision-makers respond to a general prompt to provide reasons for their judgments (undirected accountability) versus responding to a series of targeted questions designed to focus attention on the criteria used and the weighing of factors within the decision process (directed accountability). This latter form of accountability more closely simulates filling out a standardized form, which many organizations use when evaluating cases in a variety of contexts, such as hiring. In this study, a national sample of adults recruited from Amazon Mechanical Turk reviewed either a White or Black suspect across three different criminal files: drug possession, vandalism, and robbery. Contrary to expectations, those in the control condition did not show the baseline pattern of racial bias. While control participants tended to give harsher outcomes to the White suspect, this same pattern was not found in the two accountability conditions. Limited evidence of racial bias was found in each of the accountability conditions, at least for one of the case files.

Study 3 also examined undirected versus directed accountability, with MTurk workers reviewing either a White or Hispanic suspect across two case files: vandalism and battery. In addition to the measures of explicit racial bias included in the first two studies, measures of participants' implicit racial bias were also examined. While racial disparities in outcomes did not emerge for any of the conditions, the control and two accountability conditions all showed some evidence that suspect race was related to their decisions, at least some of the time.

Keeping in mind the limitations stemming from the experiment-based nature of the project, the collective findings from these studies caution against conclusions that accountability effectively addresses the influence of racial bias in the decision-making process.

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