Blind Spot: Implicit Bias and the Law

Last Friday, Harvard Immigration and Refugee Clinical Program staff and interns, along with individuals from various Harvard Law Clinics, attended the Statewide Implicit Bias Conference put on by the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation. Dr. Mahzarin Banaji, Professor of Social Ethics at Harvard University, gave a thought-provoking presentation titled “Blind Spot: Hidden Biases of Good People”. In her lecture, Dr. Banaji asked audience members to challenge their natural inclinations and recognize their own implicit decision-making processes to, ultimately, best serve those they represent in the field of law.

Implicit decisions arise from the assessment of another individual’s worth, competency, and biases. Even among the well-intentioned, implicit biases arise and can “compromise our personal and professional decisions if they are left unattended”. In one demonstration, Dr. Banaji played a video simulation of a male’s face in which the distance between the nose and eyes shifted slowly together and apart. When the man’s eyes were closest to his nose, studies showed that observers were more likely to judge the man as incompetent or unintelligent. As the man’s eyes moved closer to his temples, he was evaluated as inquisitive and smart. What are the implications of evaluating the worth and goodness (in addition to the intelligence) of others in the field of law? How do implicit biases shape the attorney-client, judge-defendant, officer-asylum seeker relationship?

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In order to combat these hidden biases, it is important to recognize their existence and how they influence our interactions with others. We can then “outsmart” our own biases by embracing diversity. At HIRC and in other legal clinics, we are called upon to apply the law consistently irrespective of who and what we are representing. It is imperative that we do not discriminate by who we help, but rather that we ask where we are dispensing our help in accordance with our values.

“Blind Spot: Hidden Biases of Good People” asked audience-members to loosen their expectations in order to best serve those around them. After spending the first few days at the Clinic, learning and experiencing the intricacies of immigration and refugee law, this Conference undoubtedly set the tone for a summer of ethical decision-making and virtuous work.

To learn more about Dr. Banaji’s book, Blind Spot: The Hidden Biases of Good People, click here.

Valentina Guerrero