pp 1–29 | Cite as

What we can (and can’t) infer about implicit bias from debiasing experiments

  • Nick ByrdEmail author


The received view of implicit bias holds that it is associative and unreflective. Recently, the received view has been challenged. Some argue that implicit bias is not predicated on “any” associative process, but it is unreflective. These arguments rely, in part, on debiasing experiments. They proceed as follows. If implicit bias is associative and unreflective, then certain experimental manipulations cannot change implicitly biased behavior. However, these manipulations can change such behavior. So, implicit bias is not associative and unreflective. This paper finds philosophical and empirical problems with that argument. When the problems are solved, the conclusion is not quite right: implicit bias is not necessarily unreflective, but it seems to be associative. Further, the paper shows that even if legitimate non-associative interventions on implicit bias exist, then both the received view and its recent contender would be false. In their stead would be interactionism or minimalism about implicit bias.


Debiasing Dual process theory Implicit bias Implicit association test Associationism Reflectivism Interventionism Causation Philosophy of mind Philosophy of cognitive science Philosophy of science 



Thanks to Mike Bishop, Mike Dacey, Bryce Huebner, Luis Rosa, John Schwenkler, anonymous comments on earlier versions of this paper. Thanks to Istvan S. N. Berkeley, John Bickle, David Chalmers, Gabriel De Marco, Grace Helton, Zoe Jenkin, Eric Mandelbaum, Michele Merritt, Valentina Petrolina, Jake Quilty-Dunn, Susanna Siegel, and Evan Westra for shrewd comments on previous presentations of this paper. Thanks to Cameron Buckner, Bertram Gawronski, Angela Smith, and Ege Yumusak for helpful personal correspondence about this project more generally.


This research was supported, in part, by a graduate assistantship from the Graduate School at Florida State University, by travel funding from the Congress of Graduate Students at Florida State University, by travel funding from the Department of Philosophy at Florida State University, and by a Graduate Student Travel Award from the American Philosophical Association.

Compliance with ethical standards

Conflict of interest

No declarations of interest to report.


  1. Anderson, J. R., & Bower, G. H. (1980). Human associative memory. New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Inc.Google Scholar
  2. Bago, B., & De Neys, W. (2017). Fast logic?: Examining the time course assumption of dual process theory. Cognition, 158, 90–109. Scholar
  3. Bar-Anan, Y., & Nosek, B. A. (2014). A comparative investigation of seven indirect attitude measures. Behavior Research Methods, 46(3), 668–688. Scholar
  4. Bargh, J. A. (1992). The ecology of automaticity: Toward establishing the conditions needed to produce automatic processing effects. The American Journal of Psychology, 105(2), 181–199. Scholar
  5. Benjamin, D. J., Berger, J. O., Johannesson, M., Nosek, B. A., Wagenmakers, E.-J., Berk, R., et al. (2017). Redefine statistical significance. Nature Human. Behaviour, 1, 6–10.Google Scholar
  6. Berger, J. (2018). Implicit attitudes and awareness. Synthese. Scholar
  7. Blair, I. V., Ma, J. E., & Lenton, A. P. (2001). Imagining stereotypes away: the moderation of implicit stereotypes through mental imagery. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 81(5), 828.Google Scholar
  8. Blake, A. (2016, September 26). The first Trump-Clinton presidential debate transcript, annotated. Washington Post. Retrieved from
  9. Brewer, M. B. (1988). A dual process model of impression formation. In T. Srull & R. S. Wyer (Eds.), Advances in social cognition (Vol. 1, pp. 1–36). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Inc.Google Scholar
  10. Briñol, P., Petty, R. E., & McCaslin, M. J. (2009). Changing attitudes on implicit versus explicit measures: What is the difference. In R. H. Fazio, R. E. Petty, & P. Briñol (Eds.), Attitudes: Insights from the new implicit measures (pp. 285–326). London: Psychology Press.Google Scholar
  11. Brownstein, M. (2018). The implicit mind: Cognitive architecture, the self, and ethics. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  12. Buckner, C. (2017). Rational inference: the lowest bounds. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research. Scholar
  13. Calanchini, J., Gonsalkorale, K., Sherman, J. W., & Klauer, K. C. (2013). Counter-prejudicial training reduces activation of biased associations and enhances response monitoring. European Journal of Social Psychology, 43(5), 321–325. Scholar
  14. Camerer, C. F., Dreber, A., Holzmeister, F., Ho, T.-H., Huber, J., Johannesson, M., et al. (2018). Evaluating the replicability of social science experiments in Nature and Science between 2010 and 2015. Nature Human Behaviour. Scholar
  15. Carley, L. (2018, October 31). Breaking the bias habit: An evidence-based intervention in Duke’s Biology Department|Duke Graduate School. Retrieved November 6, 2018, from
  16. Carnap, R. (1950). Logical foundations of probability. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  17. Cone, J., Mann, T. C., & Ferguson, M. J. (2017). Chapter three—Changing our implicit minds: How, when, and why implicit evaluations can be rapidly revised. In J. M. Olson (Ed.), Advances in experimental social psychology (Vol. 56, pp. 131–199). Lodon: Academic Press. Scholar
  18. Conrey, F. R., Sherman, J. W., Gawronski, B., Hugenberg, K., & Groom, C. J. (2005). Separating multiple processes in implicit social cognition: The quad model of implicit task performance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 89(4), 469–487. Scholar
  19. Corneille, O., & Stahl, C. (2018). Associative attitude learning: A closer look at evidence and how it relates to attitude models. Personality and Social Psychology Review. Scholar
  20. Cvencek, D., Greenwald, A. G., Brown, A. S., Gray, N. S., & Snowden, R. J. (2010). Faking of the implicit association test is statistically detectable and partly correctable. Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 32(4), 302–314. Scholar
  21. Dacey, M. (2016). Rethinking associations in psychology. Synthese, 193, 1–24.Google Scholar
  22. Dasgupta, N., & Greenwald, A. G. (2001). On the malleability of automatic attitudes: combating automatic prejudice with images of admired and disliked individuals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 81(5), 800–814. Scholar
  23. De Houwer, J. (2006). Using the implicit association test does not rule out an impact of conscious propositional knowledge on evaluative conditioning. Learning and Motivation, 37(2), 176–187. Scholar
  24. De Houwer, J. (2018). Propositional models of evaluative conditioning. Social Psychological Bulletin, 13(3), e28046. Scholar
  25. Del Pinal, G. D., & Spaulding, S. (2018). Conceptual centrality and implicit bias. Mind and Language, 33(1), 95–111. Scholar
  26. Devine, P. G. (1989). Stereotypes and prejudice: Their automatic and controlled components. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 56(1), 5–18. Scholar
  27. Devine, P. G., Forscher, P. S., Austin, A. J., & Cox, W. T. L. (2012). Long-term reduction in implicit race bias: A prejudice habit-breaking intervention. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 48(6), 1267–1278.Google Scholar
  28. Doris, J. M. (2015). Talking to our selves: Reflection, ignorance, and agency. Oxford: OUP Oxford.Google Scholar
  29. Evans, J. S. B. T. (2009). How many dual process theories do we need: One, two or many? In J. S. B. T. Evans & K. Frankish (Eds.), In two minds: Dual processes and beyond (pp. 31–54). Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  30. Evans, J., & Stanovich, K. E. (2013). Dual-process theories of higher cognition advancing the debate. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 8(3), 223–241.Google Scholar
  31. Ferrin, A. (2017). Good moral judgment and decision-making without deliberation. The Southern Journal of Philosophy, 55(1), 68–95. Scholar
  32. Forscher, P. S., Lai, C., Axt, J., Ebersole, C. R., Herman, M., Devine, P. G., et al. (2018). A meta-analysis of procedures to change implicit measures. Open Science. Scholar
  33. Frankish, K. (2010). Dual-process and dual-system theories of reasoning. Philosophy Compass, 5(10), 914–926.Google Scholar
  34. Frederick, S. (2005). Cognitive reflection and decision making. Journal of Economic Perspectives, 19(4), 25–42. Scholar
  35. Fridland, E. (2016). Skill and motor control: intelligence all the way down. Philosophical Studies, 174(6), 1539–1560. Scholar
  36. Fridland, E. (forthcoming). Longer, smaller, faster, stronger, on skills and intelligence. Philosophical Psychology.Google Scholar
  37. Gaertner, S. L., & McLaughlin, J. P. (1983). Racial stereotypes: Associations and ascriptions of positive and negative characteristics. Social Psychology Quarterly, 46(1), 23–30. Scholar
  38. Galinsky, A. D., & Moskowitz, G. B. (2000). Perspective-taking: Decreasing stereotype expression, stereotype accessibility, and in-group favoritism. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 78(4), 708.Google Scholar
  39. Gawronski, B. (in press). Six lessons for a cogent science of implicit bias and its criticism. Perspectives on Psychological Science. Retrieved from
  40. Gawronski, B., & Bodenhausen, G. V. (2014). The associative—Propositional evaluation model: Operating principles and operating conditions of evaluation. In J. W. Sherman, B. Gawronski, & Y. Trope (Eds.), Dual-process theories of the social mind (pp. 188–203). New York, NY: Guilford Press.Google Scholar
  41. Gawronski, B., Hofmann, W., & Wilbur, C. J. (2006). Are “implicit” attitudes unconscious? Consciousness and Cognition, 15(3), 485–499. Scholar
  42. Gawronski, B., Morrison, M., Phills, C. E., & Galdi, S. (2017). Temporal stability of implicit and explicit measures: A longitudinal analysis. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 43(3), 300–312. Scholar
  43. Gawronski, B., Walther, E., & Blank, H. (2005). Cognitive consistency and the formation of interpersonal attitudes: Cognitive balance affects the encoding of social information. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 41(6), 618–626. Scholar
  44. Gendler, T. S. (2008a). Alief and belief. The Journal of Philosophy, 105(10), 634–663.Google Scholar
  45. Gendler, T. S. (2008b). Alief in action (and reaction). Mind and Language, 23(5), 552–585.Google Scholar
  46. Gollwitzer, P. M. (1999). Implementation intentions: Strong effects of simple plans. American Psychologist, 54(7), 493–503.Google Scholar
  47. Greenwald, A. G., Andrew, T., Uhlmann, E. L., & Banaji, M. R. (2009). Understanding and using the Implicit Association Test: III. Meta-analysis of predictive validity. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 97(1), 17–41. Scholar
  48. Greenwald, A. G., Banaji, M. R., & Nosek, B. A. (2015). Statistically small effects of the Implicit Association Test can have societally large effects. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 108(4), 553–561. Scholar
  49. Greenwald, A., Gonzalez, R., Harris, R. J., & Guthrie, D. (1996). Effect sizes and p values: What should be reported and what should be replicated? Psychophysiology, 33(2), 175–183. Scholar
  50. Greenwald, A. G., McGhee, D. E., & Schwartz, J. L. (1998). Measuring individual differences in implicit cognition: The implicit association test. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74(6), 1464.Google Scholar
  51. Hahn, A., Judd, C. M., Hirsh, H. K., & Blair, I. V. (2014). Awareness of implicit attitudes. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General., 143, 1369–1392. Scholar
  52. Helton, G. (2017, March 23). Personal communication at 109th annual meeting of the Southern Society for Psychology and Philosophy.Google Scholar
  53. Holroyd, J., & Sweetman, J. (2016). The heterogeneity of implicit bias. In M. Brownstein & J. Saul (Eds.), Implicit bias and philosophy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  54. Horcajo, J., Briñol, P., & Petty, R. E. (2010). Consumer persuasion: Indirect change and implicit balance. Psychology & Marketing, 27(10), 938–963. Scholar
  55. Huebner, B. (2016). Implicit bias, reinforcement learning, and scaffolded moral cognition. In M. Brownstein & J. Saul (Eds.), Implicit bias and philosophy (Vol. 1). Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  56. Hume, D. (1978). A treatise of human nature. In L. A. Selby-Bigge & P. H. Nidditch (Eds.), (2nd edn). Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  57. Hume, D. (1983). An enquiry concerning the principles of morals. In E. Steinberg & J. B. Schneewind (Eds.), Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing.Google Scholar
  58. Hütter, M., & Sweldens, S. (2018). Dissociating controllable and uncontrollable effects of affective stimuli on attitudes and consumption. Journal of Consumer Research, 45(2), 320–349. Scholar
  59. Jost, J. T. (2018). The IAT is dead, long live the IAT: Context-sensitive measures of implicit attitudes are indispensable to social and political psychology. Current Directions in Psychological Science. Scholar
  60. Joy-Gaba, J. A., & Nosek, B. A. (2010). The surprisingly limited malleability of implicit racial evaluations. Social Psychology, 41(3), 137–146. Scholar
  61. Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking. Fast and Slow: Macmillan.Google Scholar
  62. Kawakami, K., Dovidio, J. F., Moll, J., Hermsen, S., & Russin, A. (2000). Just say no (to stereotyping): effects of training in the negation of stereotypic associations on stereotype activation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 78(5), 871–888.Google Scholar
  63. Kawakami, K., Phills, C. E., Steele, J. R., & Dovidio, J. F. (2007). (Close) distance makes the heart grow fonder: Improving implicit racial attitudes and interracial interactions through approach behaviors. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92(6), 957–971. Scholar
  64. Korsgaard, C. M. (1996). The sources of normativity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  65. Krajbich, I., Bartling, B., Hare, T., & Fehr, E. (2015). Rethinking fast and slow based on a critique of reaction-time reverse inference. Nature Communications, 6, 7455.Google Scholar
  66. Lai, C. K., Skinner, A. L., Cooley, E., Murrar, S., Brauer, M., Devos, T., et al. (2016). Reducing implicit racial preferences: II. Intervention effectiveness across time. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 145(8), 1001–1016.Google Scholar
  67. Levy, N. (2015). Neither fish nor fowl: Implicit Attitudes as patchy endorsements. Noûs, 49(4), 800–823.Google Scholar
  68. Levy, N. (2017). Implicit bias and moral responsibility: Probing the data. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 94(1), 3–26. Scholar
  69. Machery, E. (2016). De-freuding implicit attitudes. In M. Brownstein & J. Saul (Eds.), Implicit bias and philosophy (Vol. 1, pp. 104–129). Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  70. Madva, A. (2015). Why implicit attitudes are (probably) not beliefs. Synthese, 193(8), 2659–2684. Scholar
  71. Madva, A. (2017). Biased against DEBIASING: On the role of (institutionally sponsored) self-transformation in the struggle against prejudice. Ergo, An Open Access Journal of Philosophy. Scholar
  72. Mandelbaum, E. (2013). Thinking is believing. Inquiry, 57(1), 55–96.Google Scholar
  73. Mandelbaum, E. (2016). Attitude, inference, association: on the propositional structure of implicit bias. Noûs, 50(3), 629.Google Scholar
  74. Mandelbaum, E. (2017). Associationist theories of thought. In E. N. Zalta (Ed.), The Stanford encyclopedia of philosophy (summer 2017). Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University. Retrieved from
  75. McCloskey, D. N., & Ziliak, S. T. (1996). The standard error of regressions. Journal of Economic Literature, 34(1), 97–114.Google Scholar
  76. McCoy, M. K. (2018, June 1). Researcher: Despite good intentions, anti-bias training can actually backfire. Wisconsin Public Radio. Retrieved from
  77. Melnikoff, D. E., & Bargh, J. A. (2018). The mythical number two. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 22(4), 280–293. Scholar
  78. Meyer, D. (2018, May 29). Starbucks is closing today for its company-wide unconscious bias training: Here’s what you need to know. Fortune. Retrieved from
  79. Monteith, M. J. (1993). Self-regulation of prejudiced responses: Implications for progress in prejudice-reduction efforts. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 65(3), 469.Google Scholar
  80. Moors, A., & De Houwer, J. (2006). Automaticity: A theoretical and conceptual analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 132(2), 297–326. Scholar
  81. Newell, A. (1973). You can’t play 20 questions with nature and win: Projective comments on the papers of this symposium (p. 2033). Paper: Computer Science Department.Google Scholar
  82. Nosek, B. A., & Banaji, M. R. (2001). The go/no-go association task. Social Cognition, 19(6), 625–666. Scholar
  83. Olson, M. A., & Fazio, R. H. (2006). Reducing automatically activated racial prejudice through implicit evaluative conditioning. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 32(4), 421–433. Scholar
  84. Open Science Collaboration. (2015). Estimating the reproducibility of psychological science. Science, 349(6251), 4716. Scholar
  85. Oswald, F. L., Mitchell, G., Blanton, H., Jaccard, J., & Tetlock, P. E. (2015). Using the IAT to predict ethnic and racial discrimination: Small effect sizes of unknown societal significance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 108(4), 562–571. Scholar
  86. Payne, K., Niemi, L., & Doris, J. (2018, March 27). How to think about “Implicit Bias.” Scientific American. Retrieved from
  87. Pennycook, G., Cheyne, J. A., Koehler, D. J., & Fugelsang, J. A. (2015). Is the cognitive reflection test a measure of both reflection and intuition? Behavior Research Methods, 1–8.Google Scholar
  88. Pennycook, G., Fugelsang, J. A., Koehler, D. J., & Thompson, V. A. (2016). Commentary: Rethinking fast and slow based on a critique of reaction-time reverse inference. Frontiers in Psychology, 7, 1–3.Google Scholar
  89. Pennycook, G., Neys, W. D., Evans, J. S. B. T., Stanovich, K. E., & Thompson, V. A. (2018). The mythical dual-process typology. Trends in Cognitive Sciences. Scholar
  90. Perugini, M. (2005). Predictive models of implicit and explicit attitudes. British Journal of Social Psychology, 44(1), 29–45. Scholar
  91. Perugini, M., Richetin, J., & Zogmaister, C. (2010). Prediction of behavior. Handbook of Implicit Social Cognition: Measurement, Theory, and Applications, 10, 255–278.Google Scholar
  92. Peters, U. (2018). Implicit bias, ideological bias, and epistemic risks in philosophy. Mind & Language, 0(0).
  93. Pettigrew, T. F., & Tropp, L. R. (2006). A meta-analytic test of intergroup contact theory. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 90(5), 751.Google Scholar
  94. Posner, M. I., & Snyder, C. R. R. (1975). Attention and cognitive control. In R. L. Solso (Ed.), Information processing and cognition: The Loyola symposium. Mahwah: Lawrence Erlbaum.Google Scholar
  95. Quilty-Dunn, J., & Mandelbaum, E. (2017). Against dispositionalism: belief in cognitive science. Philosophical Studies. Scholar
  96. Richeson, J. A., & Nussbaum, R. J. (2004). The impact of multiculturalism versus color-blindness on racial bias. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 40(3), 417–423. Scholar
  97. Rydell, R. J., & McConnell, A. R. (2006). Understanding implicit and explicit attitude change: A systems of reasoning analysis. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 91(6), 995–1008. Scholar
  98. Saul, J. (2013a). Implicit bias, stereotype threat and women in philosophy. In K. Hutchison & F. Jenkins (Eds.), Women in philosophy: What needs to change (pp. 39–60). Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  99. Saul, J. (2013b). Scepticism and Implicit Bias. Disputatio, 5(37), 243–263.Google Scholar
  100. Schwenkler, J. (2018). Self-knowledge and its limits. Journal of Moral Philosophy, 15(1), 85–95. Scholar
  101. Schwitzgebel, E. (2002). A phenomenal, dispositional account of belief. Noûs, 36(2), 249–275.Google Scholar
  102. Schwitzgebel, E. (2010). Acting contrary to our professed beliefs or the gulf between occurrent judgment and dispositional belief. Pacific Philosophical Quarterly, 91(4), 531–553.Google Scholar
  103. Sechrist, G. B., & Stangor, C. (2001). Perceived consensus influences intergroup behavior and stereotype accessibility. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 80(4), 645–654.Google Scholar
  104. Shea, N., & Frith, C. D. (2016). Dual-process theories and consciousness: the case for ‘Type Zero’ cognition. Neuroscience of Consciousness, 2016(1), 1–10.Google Scholar
  105. Simmons, J. P., Nelson, L. D., & Simonsohn, U. (2013). Life after P-Hacking. In Meeting of the society for personality and social psychology (p. 38). New Orleans, LA.Google Scholar
  106. Simmons, J. P., Nelson, L. D., & Simonsohn, U. (2018). False-positive citations. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 13(2), 255–259. Scholar
  107. Sloman, S. A. (1996). The empirical case for two systems of reasoning. Psychological Bulletin, 119(1), 3–22. Scholar
  108. Smith, A. (2018). Implicit bias, moral agency, and moral responsibility. In G. Rosen, A. Byrne, J. Cohen, E. Harman, & S. Shiffrin (Eds.), The Norton introduction to philosophy (2nd ed., pp. 772–781). New York: W. W. Norton and Company.Google Scholar
  109. Stanovich, K. E. (2009). Distinguishing the reflective, algorithmic, and autonomous minds: Is it time for a tri-process theory? In J. S. B. T. Evans & K. Frankish (Eds.), In Two minds: Dual processes and beyond (pp. 55–88). Google Scholar
  110. Strack, F., & Deutsch, R. (2004). Reflective and impulsive determinants of social behavior. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 8(3), 220–247.Google Scholar
  111. Sullivan-Bissett, E. (2015). Implicit bias, confabulation, and epistemic innocence. Consciousness and Cognition, 33, 548–560. Scholar
  112. Sun, R. (2016). Implicit and explicit processes: Their relation, interaction, and competition. In L. Macchi, M. Bagassi, & R. Viale (Eds.), Cognitive unconscious and human rationality (pp. 257–274). Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.Google Scholar
  113. Toribio, J. (2018a). Accessibility, implicit bias, and epistemic justification. Synthese, 10, 1–19. Scholar
  114. Toribio, J. (2018a,b). Implicit bias: From social structure to representational format. Theoria: An International Journal for Theory, History and Foundations of Science, 33(1), 41–60.Google Scholar
  115. Tyler, J. M., & McCullough, J. D. (2009). Violating prescriptive stereotypes on job resumes: A self-presentational perspective. Management Communication Quarterly, 23(2), 272–287. Scholar
  116. Van Dessel, P., De Houwer, J., Roets, A., & Gast, A. (2016). Failures to change stimulus evaluations by means of subliminal approach and avoidance training. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 110(1), e1–e15. Scholar
  117. Woodward, J. (2016). Causation and Manipulability. In E. N. Zalta (Ed.), The Stanford encyclopedia of philosophy (Winter 2016). Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University. Retrieved from

Copyright information

© Springer Nature B.V. 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Philosophy DepartmentFlorida State UniversityTallahasseeUSA

Personalised recommendations