Culture, Medicine, and Psychiatry

, Volume 37, Issue 2, pp 314–339 | Cite as

Patrolling Your Blind Spots: Introspection and Public Catharsis in a Medical School Faculty Development Course to Reduce Unconscious Bias in Medicine

  • Seth Donal Hannah
  • Elizabeth Carpenter-Song
Original Paper


Cultural competence education has been criticized for excessively focusing on the culture of patients while ignoring how the culture of medical institutions and individual providers contribute to health disparities. Many educators are now focusing on the role of bias in medical encounters and searching for strategies to reduce its negative impact on patients. These bias-reduction efforts have often been met with resistance from those who are offended by the notion that “they” are part of the problem. This article examines a faculty development course offered to medical school faculty that seeks to reduce bias in a way that avoids this problem. Informed by recent social–psychological research on bias, the course focuses on forms of bias that operate below the level of conscious awareness. With a pedagogical strategy promoting self-awareness and introspection, instructors encourage participants to discover their own unconscious biases in the hopes that they will become less biased in the future. By focusing on hidden forms of bias that everyone shares, they hope to create a “safe-space” where individuals can discuss shameful past experiences without fear of blame or criticism. Drawing on participant-observation in all course sessions and eight in-depth interviews, this article examines the experiences and reactions of instructors and participants to this type of approach. We “lift the hood” and closely examine the philosophy and strategy of course founders, the motivations of the participants, and the experience of and reaction to the specific pedagogical techniques employed. We find that their safe-space strategy was moderately successful, largely due to the voluntary structure of the course, which ensured ample interest among participants, and their carefully designed interactive exercises featuring intimate small group discussions. However, this success comes at the expense of considering the multidimensional sources of bias. The specific focus on introspection implies that prior ignorance, not active malice, is responsible for biased actions. In this way, the individual perpetrators of bias escape blame for their actions while the underlying causes of their behavior go unexplored or unaccounted for.


Cultural competence Physician training Health disparities Minority health 


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of SociologyHarvard UniversityCambridgeUSA
  2. 2.Department of Community and Family Medicine, Dartmouth Psychiatric Research CenterDartmouth CollegeLebanonUSA
  3. 3.Department of Anthropology, Dartmouth Psychiatric Research CenterDartmouth CollegeLebanonUSA

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