Unconscious Bias in Action

Unconscious Bias in Action

Photo by PeopleImages/iStock/Getty Images

Photo by PeopleImages/iStock/Getty Images


In a field research experiment on labor market discrimination, researchers Marianne Bertrand and Sendhil Mullainathan sent out about 5000 resumes for various positions posted in help-wanted ads. They distributed the resumes and randomly assigned half the resumes a white sounding name and the other half an African-American sounding name. This is an early version of many other resume experiments that followed.



The ads they responded to covered a wide variety of jobs in the sales, customer service, administrative support, and clerical job categories. They found that applicants with white sounding names got 50% more callbacks than those with African-American sounding names, and this was true across the various occupation and industry categories they studied in the experiment. The results were consistent across various types of employers, including federal contractors and employers who noted in their help-wanted ad that they were an equal opportunity employer. This experiment was published in 2003, but many other researchers have conducted similar studies since then with similar results.

In a 2016 article by Bertrand in the Chicago Booth Review, she talks about the overwhelming strength of evidence researchers have accumulated over the years demonstrating that unconscious bias does exist. She notes how researchers have accumulated this evidence using all types of research methods, including correspondence studies, audit studies, controlled lab experiments (including the implicit-association test (IAT)), neuroscience studies, and Goldberg paradigm experiments (lab versions of audit or correspondence studies). She explains that, based on a mountain of evidence, researchers can confidently state that unconscious bias does exist.

And now her question is: "What are we going to do about it?" She notes that while there's been a lot of research done to show that unconscious bias exists, there hasn't been as much research done to figure out "What causes discrimination? What does it cost us? And what can we do to mitigate it?" In her 2016 article in the Chicago Booth Review, she strongly encourages researches to take the existing large body of research on unconscious bias and undertake field research to uncover the real costs of unconscious bias in organizations and figure out what actually works to weaken its hold.

While research shows that diversity awareness trainings have not proven effective at reducing unconscious bias or increasing workplace diversity, one area of great hope in effectively addressing unconscious bias is intergroup contact theory.


See related Diversity Remix Blog posts:

Increase Interaction. Reduce Bias.

Seeing Through Another's Creative Eyes




Bertrand, Marianne, This Problem Has a Name: Discrimination, Chicago Booth Review, May 21, 2016 (digital article adapted from "Field Experiments on Discrimination," a chapter prepared for the Handbook of Field Experiments and coauthored with Esther Duflo).

Bertrand, Marianne, & Sendhil Mullainathan, Are Emily and Greg More Employable than Lakisha and Jamal? A Field Experiment on Labor Market Discrimination, The American Economic Review, Vol. 94, No. 4, Sept. 2004, pp. 991-1013.