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Presumed Unintentional: The Ironic Effects of Implicit Bias Framing on Whites’ Perceptions of Discrimination


Awareness of implicit bias has increased dramatically over the last decade. Indeed, news articles often cite implicit bias as central to discriminatory incidents and, as one high-profile example, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton highlighted implicit bias during the second debate of the 2016 presidential campaign. This has generally been met with enthusiasm by both activists and researchers. However, the present research suggests that framing racial bias in terms of implicit bias may have some unintended harmful consequences. Specifically, I argue that biases framed as implicit may reduce Whites’ perceptions of the intent involved in instances of discrimination, which should, in turn, reduce perceptions of perpetrator blame, the severity of the discrimination, and the necessity for punishment of the perpetrator. Four experiments found support for these hypotheses. Across three studies, framing racial bias in terms of implicit bias, rather than explicit bias or providing no information about bias, reduced Whites’ perceptions of perpetrator intentionality, and perceived intentionality mediated the relationship between implicit bias framing and perpetrator blame, incident severity, and support for punishment. This pattern was identified in discriminatory incidents that were mundane, in the context of customer service (Experiment 1); that were less common and more harmful, in the context of a police shooting (Experiment 2); and in which the perpetrator expresses explicitly biased beliefs, in the context of a workplace meeting between a manager and a new employee (Experiment 3). An additional study experimentally tested the proposed mechanism of perceived intent by manipulating intent and examining the effect on the measured outcomes (Experiment 4). The present findings suggest that, in contrast to the goal of raising awareness about implicit bias, framing racial bias in terms of implicit bias can undermine perceptions of the severity of discrimination.

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