After days of endless debate over FBI Director James Comey’s notification to the United States Congress of reopening the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s email server, we have heard an abundance of both praise and condemnation. Yet absent is any commentary about implicit bias and its role in decision making. One can love or hate the ramifications of Director Comey’s disclosure itself, but the real point to be made is that implicit bias lives in each of us.
Project Implicit – a non-profit started by scientists from Harvard University, University of Washington, and University of Virginia – studies the thoughts and feelings that occur on a subconscious level. Founded in 1998, the organization defines implicit attitudes as, “Positive and negative evaluations that occur outside of our conscious awareness and control.”1 And though much study of implicit bias centers in our attitudes toward social groups such as race and gender, research shows our subconscious broadly affects decision making, and certainly decisions related to politics.
One online Implicit Association Test (IAT) examines participants’ biases toward presidents. This IAT observes your implicit attitude toward Barack Obama versus Richard Nixon then uses your answers themselves as well as the speed in which you give answers to determine your level of bias. It took me less than ten minutes to complete.
Despite viewing myself as a man of integrity and principle and good character – words used by the White House to describe Director Comey – my data suggested, “A moderate automatic preference for Barack Obama over Richard Nixon.”1 If everyone, including Director Comey, participated in a few IATs, we could begin to recognize our own subconscious biases and perhaps view both decision making and the political spectrum in a vastly different light.
As with myself, is it possible that Director Comey and many others have great integrity? Yes. And, like myself, are Director Comey and all others swayed by implicit bias? Yes! Each of us can simultaneously be honest and transparent and independent while also being bias. Science shows us that you do not have to be a bad person with bad intentions to have your subconscious biases derail an attempt at objectivity.
To overcome our biases, we must look toward process. While the role of process is rarely seen as a mechanism for circumventing bias, having guidelines, rules, and procedures provide vital logic when emotion tends to get in the way. In those moments when emotion and our subconscious are a threat, our last defense are the processes we put in place when we were not under duress. And it transcends politics. Whether dating, investing, or voting, humans are far less logical and far more emotional than we care to admit – our brains are more complex than we ever imagined.
The point is not to debate the political correctness nor the party preference of an FBI director. As many have attributed, James Comey is known as a man of integrity, principle, and character.2 But, like the rest of us, he is human and therefore his decisions are innately impacted by his emotions, including implicit bias. And like the rest of us, when in the moment and faced with an important decision, only process would have saved Director Comey from himself.