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Integrating implicit bias into counselor education.

The author reviews the empirical and theoretical literature on implicit bias as it relates to counselor education. Counselor educators can integrate implicit bias into the concepts of multicultural knowledge, awareness, and skill. Knowledge about implicit bias includes its theoretical explanation, measurement, and impact on counseling. Awareness of implicit bias requires specialized assessment independent of self-reported bias. Skills related to implicit bias include intentionality in thought and behavior and long-term commitment to changing biased thought patterns.


The preamble to the ACA Code of Ethics (American Counseling Association, 2005) states that members are to "recognize diversity and embrace a cross-cultural approach" (p. 3). A cross-cultural approach is necessary because of the increasingly diverse population of the United States and the inappropriateness of applying a single cultural approach to all clients (Sue, Arredondo, & McDavis, 1992). One essential component of a cross-cultural approach is to educate counseling students that bias, such as prejudice, discrimination, and stereotypes, can occur in subtle and unintentional ways (American Psychological Association, 2003; Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs [CACREP], 2009; Utsey, Ponterotto, & Porter, 2008). For example, CACREP standards include knowledge of the "processes of intentional and unintentional oppression and discrimination" (Section II, G.2.f., 2009). Unintentional forms of bias are frequently conceptualized as implicit, meaning that they are hard to control, not always consciously accessible, and measured indirectly (Greenwald & Banaji, 1995). Research on implicit bias has increased in frequency, scope, and sophistication since the late 1990s (see Wittenbrink & Schwarz, 2007), yet this trend has not seemed to have an impact on counselor education despite clear evidence that counseling students have significant implicit bias (Abreu, 1999; Boysen & Vogel, 2008; Castillo, Brossart, Reyes, Conoley, & Phoummarath, 2007).

Unintentional bias is generally acknowledged in the counseling literature, and there are several interrelated yet distinct approaches to this construct. Aversive racism is a broad concept that defines how unintentional bias functions in contemporary society (Dovidio, Gaertner, Kawakami, & Hodson, 2002). People who exhibit aversive racism tend to reject old-fashioned, blatant prejudice and view themselves as unbiased; however, they may simultaneously engage in forms of discrimination that are subtle, unconscious, and unintentional (Dovidio, Gaertner, et al., 2002). The behavioral manifestations of aversive racism are sometimes conceptualized as microaggressions (Constantine, Smith, Redington, & Owens, 2008; Sue et al., 2007; Sue et al., 2008). Sue et al. (2007) defined microaggressions as the subtle slights and insults that targets of bias face, most of which occur without the perpetrator's awareness. To illustrate, microinvalidations, one form of microaggression, are behaviors that reject or invalidate the experiences of targets of bias (e.g., assuming that a person who is not White is from another country or denying the continuing existence of discrimination).

Implicit bias is a possible explanation for the dissociation between intentional and unintentional discrimination manifested in aversive racism and microaggression. Researchers have distinguished between attitudes that occur at the explicit and implicit levels (Petty, Fazio, & Brinol, 2008; Wittenbrink & Schwarz, 2007). Explicit biases are conscious and amenable to measurement by self-report. Counselors' explicit bias could be measured by asking "Do you respect cultural differences?" A response of "no" would indicate explicit bias. Alternatively, implicit biases are "actions or judgments that are under the control of automatically activated evaluation, without the performer's awareness of that causation" (Greenwald, McGhee, & Schwartz, 1998, p. 1464). As such, they are not always available to self-report and are not committed with conscious intention (Greenwald & Banaji, 1995). Implicit bias might manifest itself in how efficiently a person can associate two concepts such as African American and bad. Researchers have demonstrated that stimuli associated with the concept African American can facilitate recognition of (i.e., prime) stimuli representing negative concepts such as bad (Dovidio, Kawakami, Johnson, Johnson, & Howard, 1997). For example, if pictures of African American faces flashed quickly on a computer screen cause a person to recognize bad words (e.g., vomit, death) more quickly than when European American faces are flashed, this suggests an implicit bias associating the concepts African American and bad; such a result may be completely unintentional and unconscious (Dovidio et al., 1997). Although researchers have not examined the direct impact of implicit bias on cross-cultural counseling, there is evidence to suggest that even subtle, unintentional bias among counselors can harm the therapeutic alliance and decrease client perceptions of counselor competency (Constantine, 2007).

The concepts of aversive racism, microaggression, and implicit bias overlap extensively, and each provides a useful perspective on unintentional bias; however, implicit bias is a particularly valuable concept for counselor educators. Theorists presuppose the existence of implicit bias as part of the underlying explanation for aversive racism (Dovidio, Gaertner, et al., 2002). Therefore, understanding and addressing implicit bias holds the promise of dismantling the mechanisms of discrimination and not merely providing a description of a specific type of discrimination. Implicit bias also has the advantage of being measured using indirect methods rather than self-report. Avoiding self-report attenuates the effects of socially desirable responding. Researchers have shown that counseling students' self-reports of multicultural competency tend to be overstated (Cartwright, Daniels, & Zhang, 2008) and that unintentional bias can exist among counseling faculty who are, presumably, explicitly egalitarian (Constantine et al., 2008); thus, self-reports cannot be relied upon as a completely accurate measure of counseling students' bias and multicultural competency. Finally, implicit bias has a large research base; this means that there is extensive knowledge about its origins, measurement, effect on social behavior, and alteration (Fazio & Olson, 2003; Nosek, Greenwald, & Benaji, 2007; Petty et al., 2008; Wittenbrink & Schwarz, 2007).

Despite its advantages, implicit bias has rarely been addressed specifically in the counselor education or the broader counseling literature. In fact, a general review of stereotype and prejudice research by Abreu (2001) remains the only attempt to integrate implicit bias into the counselor education literature. Abreu (2001) reviewed the theory and research surrounding stereotypes and prejudice and included evidence that such biases can occur outside conscious awareness. He also proposed some readings and discussion questions that could be used by counselor educators to address implicit bias. Despite the value of Abreu's (2001) work, an updated and expanded review is necessary to account for new theory and research related to implicit bias. Most notably, research using the Implicit Association Test (IAT; Greenwald et al., 1998) was just emerging as Abreu's article was published and has greatly expanded understanding of the development and change of implicit attitudes (e.g., Gawronski & Bodenhausen, 2006; Olson & Fazio, 2006; Rydell & McConnell, 2006).

Research and theory on implicit bias can be integrated with multicultural competencies. Knowledge, awareness, and skill are the central components in achieving multicultural competency (Arredondo et al., 1996; Sue & Sue, 2003). Multiculturally competent counselors possess knowledge that bias exists and may affect their interactions with clients, awareness of personal biases, and skills for working effectively with people of diverse backgrounds. The purpose of this article is to describe key components of knowledge about implicit bias, methods of promoting awareness of implicit bias, and skills that can lead to the control or reduction of implicit bias.

knowledge of Implicit Bias

Knowledge about bias is an essential component of multicultural competency (Sue & Sue, 2003). Two of the specific knowledge competencies expected of counselors are (a) being able to define various forms of bias and (b) knowing the ways that bias can affect counselors' work (Arredondo et al., 1996). Theory and research on implicit bias can be integrated into this multicultural knowledge base. Four interconnected pieces of fundamental knowledge about implicit bias can help develop culturally competent counselors: (a) humans process information at two levels, (b) implicit bias is measureable, (c) implicit bias predicts counseling-related behaviors, and (d) counselors may possess implicit bias. Such knowledge can help counselors and counseling students attain cultural competencies related to knowledge of implicit bias and how it might affect their work with clients.

Dual Processing

Counselor educators can prepare counseling students for the challenging concept of implicit bias by first introducing the concept of dual processing. Dual processing refers to the existence both of automatic processes that require little to no conscious thought and of controlled processes that necessitate extensive use of conscious resources. Theorists have posited that dual processing results from the existence of two human memory systems: associative and rule based (E. R. Smith & DeCoster, 2000). In the associative system, information is processed primarily at the unconscious level, and thus, mental processes are effortless and automatic. Learning in this system is a slow and repetitive process. Repetition over time leads to the association of concepts. The associative system can be illustrated through an examination of how individuals (e.g., counselors) construct stereotypes. A common stereotype about African Americans is that they appear to be aggressive and hostile (Devine, 1989). Individuals exposed to this stereotype repeatedly over many years and from many sources may associate the concepts African American and aggressive/hostile automatically without conscious effort. Consequently, simply exposing counselors to words related to the concept African American (e.g., Black, Africa) can lead to immediate, effortless, and unintentional thoughts about the concept hostile (Abreu, 1999). Such stereotype activation can affect later behavior even if the individual is never consciously aware of it (Abreu, 1999; Bargh, Chen, & Burrows, 1996). The associative system's capability of processing information without consciousness or effort is also used to explain the existence of implicit attitudes (Gawronski & Bodenhausen, 2006).

The rule based system, which accounts for explicit attitudes, is quite different from the associative system (Gawronski & Bodenhausen, 2006). Information processing in the rule based system is effortful and generally occurs through conscious intention. Learning in the rule based system can be a quick process and occurs through the acquisition of language based rules that tend to be logical. For example, the rule based system explains how counselors learn the appropriate terminology for referring to groups. Imagine that a client tells a counselor that the term Black is offensive but the term African American is not offensive. The counselor would immediately learn the rule "use the term African American," and this would lead to conscious effort to choose the correct term during future interactions with the client.

Sometimes the associative system and the rule based system diverge; this can lead to contradictory behaviors such as rejecting prejudice consciously (rule based system) and simultaneously exhibiting unintentional bias (associative system). Sloman (1996) argued that the best support for dual processing emerges from people's ability to "simultaneously believe two contradictory responses" (p. 11). Sloman used the example of Tversky and Kahneman's (1983) famous work on heuristics in which they had participants read a description of Linda who "is 31 years old, single, outspoken and very bright. She majored in philosophy. As a student, she was deeply concerned with issues of discrimination and social justice and also participated in anti-nuclear demonstrations" (p. 297). Participants then rated the likelihood that Linda was (a) "a bank teller" or (b) "a bank teller and is active in the feminist movement" (p. 297). The majority of participants indicated that b was more likely than a even though the probability of two events (i.e., bank teller and feminist) must exceed the probability of one event contained within the two (i.e., bank teller). Although the rule based system computes the probabilities involved accurately, the associative system simultaneously suggests that Linda is an active feminist. In this case, such automaticity of stereotypes in the associative system worked against the methodical logic of the rule based system. Bias among counselors can lead to similar contradictions. For example, interpersonal awkwardness and difficulty forming an alliance could result from a counselor feeling anxious and uncomfortable around a client who is Muslim. In this scenario, a contradictory response occurred because the associative system produced subtly biased behaviors that were inconsistent with the rule based system that tells counselors not to discriminate on the basis of religion. In other words, implicit attitudes can contradict explicit attitudes.

Measurement of Implicit Bias

After establishing the existence of an associative system, counselor educators can illustrate that, despite their frequently unconscious nature, implicit attitudes can be measured. Implicit attitudes are believed to stem from the associative system; thus, they cannot be measured using self-report scales, which, by definition, rely on an individual's explicit knowledge of him- or herself that is believed to originate in the rule based system. Therefore, implicit bias can only be measured using indirect methods.

The most well known and well validated implicit measure is the IAT (Greenwald et al., 1998). Usually administered via computer, the IAT is a timed measure that is designed to examine the associative strength of paired concepts. A typical IAT measures the strength of individuals' associations between the concepts good and bad and concepts representing two racial categories. For example, test takers press one response key to categorize words and pictures representing the concepts good and European American together while pressing another response key to categorize the concepts bad and African American together. In a separate block of trials, test takers complete a reversed task in which good and African American are categorized together by pressing one response key while at the same time bad and European American are categorized together by pressing another response key. Extensive research has demonstrated that for the majority of European American research participants, the good/European American and bad/African American categorizations occurred more quickly than did the good/African American and bad/European American categorizations (Nosek, Banaji, & Greenwald, 2002). This result, known as the IAT effect, is believed to be indicative of implicit bias. Researchers have demonstrated similar IAT effects based on age, ethnicity, gender, political orientation, religion, sexual orientation, and weight (see Nosek et al., 2007). However, it is important to note that some researchers have disputed the cause of IAT effects (Wentura & Rothermund, 2007) and their interpretation (Blanton & Jaccard, 2006); furthermore, even the IAT's strongest proponents do not believe the measure is currently reliable enough to be used for making decisions about individuals (Nosek et al., 2007).

Impact of Implicit Bias

Extensive laboratory research on the general population suggests that implicit bias, as assessed by measures such as the IAT, can affect some behaviors that are essential to the processes of counseling. Specifically, implicit bias predicts subtle social behaviors, interpersonal difficulties, and the misinterpretation of behaviors. The greatest number of research studies to date have focused on the ability of implicit bias to predict subtle social behaviors when interacting with a target of bias. The results of a meta-analysis of 184 independent samples (N = 14,900) indicated that implicit bias was a more effective predictor of subtle social bias than was explicit bias (Greenwald, Poehlman, Uhlmann, & Banaji, 2009). In studies of individuals' actual interactions with targets of bias, implicit bias predicted outside observers' ratings of increased blinking and speech errors and decreased smiling and eye contact (Dasgupta & Rivera, 2006; Dovidio et al., 1997; McConnell & Leibold, 2001). In addition, people with high implicit bias have demonstrated a tendency to impulsively move away from targets of bias and to sit at a greater distance from targets of bias (Bessenoff & Sherman, 2000; Neumann, Hulsenbeck, & Seibt, 2004; Rydell & McConnell, 2006).

Perhaps because of the aforementioned subtle social behaviors, implicit bias may also predict interpersonal difficulties. In the laboratory, observers of interracial interactions rated individuals with high implicit bias to be less friendly than individuals with low implicit bias (Dovidio, Kawakami, & Gaertner, 2002). More important, the ratings of friendliness provided by individuals who actually engaged in the interracial interactions were also lower for individuals with high implicit bias (Dovideo, Kawakami, et al., 2002; McConnell & Leibold, 2001). Researchers using naturalistic methods have also found a relation between implicit bias and interpersonal difficulties. In one study, researchers showed that interethnic pairings of college roommates tended to end more quickly than same-race pairing of college roommates, and implicit bias emerged as the only significant predictor of how long interethnic roommates lived together (Towles-Schwen & Fazio, 2006).

Implicit bias can also lead to the misinterpretation of behaviors. For example, researchers found that Germans with high implicit bias toward Turks interpreted ambiguous behaviors such as asking a woman out on a date more negatively when the man engaging in the behavior was described as Turkish rather than German. The same participants also predicted that a Turkish man's future behavior would be more negative than would that of a German man (Gawronski, Geschke, & Banse, 2003). Researchers have also used implicit bias to predict the misinterpretation of emotions. In one set of studies, individuals with high implicit bias perceived African American faces as angrier than the faces of European Americans (Hugenberg & Bodenhausen, 2003, 2004). Overall, engaging in any of the behaviors predicted by implicit bias would hinder cross-cultural competency; in fact, the behaviors are the exact type of subtle slights that Sue et al. (2007) labeled as microaggressions.

Implicit Bias Among Counselors

A final piece of knowledge for culturally competent counselors is that researchers have provided evidence that counselors have significant implicit bias. Abreau (1999) conducted a subliminal priming study using a sample of clinical and counseling professionals and students. Participants saw neutral primes (e.g., water, people) or primes related to the concept African American (e.g., Africa, Blacks); in both cases, the primes were flashed quickly to prevent them from reaching participants' conscious awareness. Then, participants rated the hostility of a hypothetical client. The results showed that counselors rated the client as more hostile when primed with words related to the concept African American than when primed with neutral words, which suggests the presence of implicit bias (Devine, 1989). In another study, Boysen and Vogel (2008) assessed 105 counseling students (ethnicity--75% European American, 15% African American, 6% Asian American, 8% Hispanic or Latino/a, 2% other; sexual orientation--85% heterosexual, 11% bisexual, 4% homosexual) by administering IATs designed to measure bias toward African Americans and sexual minorities. The results indicated that significant implicit bias toward both groups was present in the sample and did not vary by level of education. In a similar study, Castillo et al. (2007) found that implicit bias toward African Americans was significantly reduced, but not eliminated, among students enrolled in a multicultural counseling course. In summary, implicit bias toward various diverse groups of people appears to be endemic to Western culture (Nosek et al., 2002), and this includes counselors.

Awareness of Implicit Bias

Awareness of personal biases is a central component of multicultural competency (Sue & Sue, 2003). Two specific competencies expected of counselors are recognition of the ways in which they do not accept diversity and recognition of their personal difficulties in respecting diversity (Arredondo et al., 1996). Implicit bias can be included as a barrier to accepting and respecting diversity; however, achieving awareness of implicit bias is likely to require the administration and interpretation of specialized measures. In this section, implicit assessment methods and the typical reactions to implicit assessment are outlined so that counselor educators can use this information to facilitate students' increased awareness of implicit bias.

Assessment Methods

One method of promoting multicultural counseling competency is to frequently assess students' knowledge, awareness, and skill (Hill, 2003). Given ethical, accreditation, and practice standards, it would seem appropriate that implicit bias be included in these assessments. Because implicit bias can exist outside consciousness (Greenwald & Banaji, 1995; Greenwald et al., 1998), individuals cannot evaluate their level of implicit bias without the use of specialized assessment tools. Therefore, without assessment, counseling students may never become aware of their level of implicit bias, which would be inconsistent with standards of cultural competency (Arredondo et al., 1996). Additionally, counseling students whose implicit bias is assessed using IATs may be able to notice that some of the trials feel more difficult than others (Monteith, Voils, & Ashburn-Nardo, 2001). Allowing students to experience the effects of implicit bias is consistent with recommendations that multicultural counseling education should go beyond cognitive engagement and incorporate experiential learning (Arthur & Achenbach, 2002).

Given the unintentional and insidious nature of implicit bias, fostering awareness of it requires that counselor educators go beyond the typical reliance on self-report measures. Unlike the many self-report scales of multicultural counseling competency, the most common implicit measures require the recording of reaction times with millisecond accuracy. This requirement has prompted some multicultural researchers to lament the low "practical utility" of implicit bias measures (Burkard, Medler, & Boticki, 2001, p. 473). Nonetheless, constructing an IAT only requires moderate computer skills, and all of the materials needed to construct an IAT are available in print and online (Lane, Banaji, Nosek, & Greenwald, 2007; http://faculty.; Although constructing a computerized IAT entails an investment of time and effort, it allows for full control over the attitudes assessed, and research suggests that it has higher reliability than other implicit measures (Bosson, Swann, & Pennebaker, 2000).

Creating a computerized IAT has specific advantages, but the quickest and most practical option for one-time assessments of implicit bias are online IATs. IATs measuring various forms of bias are freely available on the Project Implicit website ( Immediate, individualized feedback and an explanation of the results are provided to test takers, and students could be assigned to take the IAT and reflect on the experience and the results as part of an experiential component of course work. A drawback to this method, however, is that counselor educators cannot directly access the raw data or results from their students.

An alternative to the computer-based IAT is a low-technology version that is easily administered to groups during class. Paper-and-pencil IATs follow the same principles as the computerized version, but rather than presenting stimuli one at a time, they are presented together on single pieces of paper (for further description of the processes, see Lemm, Lane, Sattler, Khan, & Nosek, 2008; Pruett & Chan, 2006). The paper-and-pencil IAT has high pedagogical utility. Counselor educators could administer and have students self-score their IATs in less than 10 minutes. As with the computerized IAT, the paper-and-pencil format provides students with immediate and easily interpreted evidence of their implicit bias.

Reactions to Implicit Bias Assessment

Counselor educators who conduct implicit assessments will want to be aware that negative reactions to the process and results are common (Dovidio, 2005). Identification of personal implicit bias is likely to be stressful for students whose explicit attitudes are egalitarian, and the process might lead to strong emotions. In general, experiential learning in multicultural counseling education, although valuable, warrants informed consent and careful consideration of the needs of the students. Furthermore, debriefing is an essential component of the process (Arthur & Achenbach, 2002). Debriefings can ensure that adequate support, structure, and processing time are available to students.

Students' negative reactions to feedback about implicit bias can be conceptualized as cognitive dissonance (Festinger & Carlsmith, 1959). Cognitive dissonance might occur when students who explicitly believe they are unbiased are provided with evidence that they have implicit bias. Given that individuals are typically motivated to reduce cognitive dissonance, students may seek to resolve the dissonance by denigrating the validity of the implicit measure or questioning the practical significance of the results (Monteith et al., 2001). One way to counteract such student reactions is to establish the validity and impact of implicit bias prior to having students examine personal levels of implicit bias. Although confronting individuals with their personal biases can lead them to have negative emotions, negative emotions are a significant predictor of later reductions in bias (Czopp, Monteith, & Mark, 2006); considering this, counselor educators can encourage students to resolve their cognitive dissonance by committing themselves to reduction of implicit bias.

Skill in Controlling and reducing Implicit Bias

Multiculturally competent counselors are skilled at working effectively with people of diverse backgrounds (Sue & Sue, 2003). Competencies specifically related to multicultural skill include attempting to overcome limitations in multicultural competencies and continuously pursuing a nonbiased identity (Arredondo et al., 1996). From an implicit bias standpoint, these skills include actively working to attenuate the influences implicit bias has on counseling behaviors or working to directly reduce implicit bias. Outlined in this section are the skills that counseling students can learn to control subtle social biases and the cognitive skills that counseling students can apply in long-term efforts to reduce implicit bias.

Skill in Controlling Subtle Social Biases

Implicit and explicit attitudes have the power to predict behaviors, but they are not necessarily useful in predicting the same behaviors. Explicit attitudes are superior in predicting intentional behaviors, but implicit attitudes are superior in predicting behaviors that individuals are not aware of and do not intend to perform (Greenwald et al., 2009). For example, in one study, European American participants interacted with an African American confederate. The participants completed measures of implicit and explicit bias toward African Americans and rated how friendly they had been during the interaction. Outside observers also rated the friendliness of the participants during the interaction. The results indicated that explicit bias predicted the participants' perception of their own friendliness, but only implicit bias predicted observers' ratings of actual friendliness (Dovidio, Kawakami, et al., 2002). Such results are consistent with the concept of counselor micgoaggressions (Constantine, 2007).

Considering the subtle ways implicit bias can manifest itself, counselor educators can encourage students to focus on awareness of unintended and socially awkward behaviors with the ultimate goal of controlling them. Counseling students might be encouraged to become more aware of and intentional with specific behaviors related to implicit bias, such as making eye contact, smiling, maintaining an open posture, and speaking fluidly (Bessenoff & Sherman, 2000; Dasgupta & Rivera, 2006; Dovidio et al., 1997; McConnell & Leibold, 2001; Neumann et al., 2004; Rydell & McConnell, 2006). Implicit bias also predicts misinterpretations of behavior (Gawronski et al., 2003; Hugenberg & Bodenhausen, 2003, 2004), which means students can also be encouraged to carefully consider their objectivity when making judgments about the emotions and behaviors of clients who are potential targets of bias. The critical component in this type of skill acquisition is to make formerly covert processes overt so that students and faculty may address them.

The Skilled Counselor Training Model is one method that might be used to foster skill in controlling subtle interpersonal biases (Crews et al., 2005). In this training procedure, an expert first defines and models specific skills. Then, students use the skill in a role play with all participants observing and providing feedback. This model could be particularly effective for teaching basic skills that may fail because of unexamined implicit bias; the only modification needed in such a case is to focus the role plays on behaviors that implicit bias is likely to affect. For example, counselor educators could model effective processing of cultural issues with a client, and students could practice role playing those skills while maintaining positive social behaviors (e.g., maintaining an open posture and appropriate eye contact). Because students in the role play receive immediate feedback, they could become aware of subtle behavioral biases and work to correct them in a supportive environment.

Skill in Reducing Implicit Bias

Although learning to control the behaviors predicted by implicit bias is an important skill, counselor educators can also attempt to foster actual changes in implicit bias. Changing implicit bias is consistent with the skill of continuously pursuing a nonbiased identity (Arredondo et al., 1996). Counselor educators interested in fostering actual change in implicit bias among students can encourage long-term commitment to change, the reconditioning of attitudes, and changes in patterns of thinking.

Long-term commitment to change. Researchers have illustrated that explicit attitudes (the rule based system) can change instantly because of the acquisition of new information, but implicit attitudes (the associative system) are much slower to change (Rydell & McConnell, 2006). For example, a counselor's explicit attitude about gay men might be immediately corrected after first learning that the majority of pedophiles are not gay, but it may take a long time to overcome the implicit association of gay men and sexual perversion. Implicit attitudes change slowly, therefore, counselors' continued effort to reach competency is especially important in this area. Emphasizing continued effort is consistent with the conceptualization of multicultural counseling competency as an active process wherein growth and improvement are continually sought (Arredondo et al., 1996; Collins & Pieterse, 2007). In general, the type of implicitly egalitarian attitudes aspired to in counselor training are unlikely to develop over the course of one semester (Boysen & Vogel, 2008), thus necessitating continued commitment to change.

One way to reinforce commitment to implicit attitude change is to assess it regularly in much the same way that self-reported multicultural counseling competency may be regularly assessed (Hill, 2003). The periodic feedback from assessment would remind students of the necessary commitment to continued efforts toward change. In addition, Hill (2003) suggested several methods that counselors can use to promote multiculturalism; these methods could also serve as public commitments to maintain counseling students' intentions to reduce implicit bias. Some of Hill's (2003) examples included (a) setting goals related to implicit bias at the organizational level, (b) developing committees to address implicit bias in the workplace, (c) setting aside specific funds and time for professional development related to implicit bias, and (d) seeking out a mentor who can assist in reducing implicit bias. Overall, the central lesson for students is that altering implicit associations is likely to require extended effort; a necessary skill must be continued commitment to change.

Reconditioning attitudes. Research on attitude change suggests several different techniques that can be used to alter implicit bias after counseling students have made a long-term commitment to change (Gawronski & Bodenhausen, 2006). At the most basic level, the alteration of learned associations that occurs during associative conditioning is an effective method for manipulating implicit attitudes (Olson & Fazio, 2006). New implicit attitudes can be established through simple pairing of one stimulus with another one that is known to elicit positive or negative reactions (Olson & Fazio, 2006). Individuals have powerfully positive implicit associations with the concept of self (Ashburn-Nardo, Voils, & Monteith, 2001); therefore, a useful method for reconditioning implicit attitudes is to practice the skill of associating targets of bias with the self. Close contact with a social group over an extended period of time is associated with lower implicit bias toward that group (Aberson, Shoemaker, & Tomolillo, 2004); thus, counselor educators could have students develop close contacts with their targets of bias. Indeed, immersion and interethnic contact are recognized methods of multicultural counseling education (Diaz-Lazaro & Cohen, 2001). Another technique is to have students become advocates for organizations focusing on types of diversity that the students have implicit bias toward. For example, a heterosexual student who has implicit bias against gay and lesbian individuals might become a member of an organization that supports alliance between individuals of all sexual orientations. Previous research on positive implicit attitudes related to the self (Ashburn-Nardo et al., 2001) and the nature of the associative system (Smith & DeCoster, 2000) indicates that lower implicit bias could result from having counseling students invest themselves in advocating for specific multicultural groups over a long period of time.

Changing patterns of thinking. Just as clients are taught alternative patterns of thinking to reduce their symptoms of mental disorder, students in counseling courses and practica can be taught different patterns of thinking to reduce their implicit bias. Research provides evidence that implicit bias can be changed by altering individuals' automatic negative associations (Dasgupta & Greenwald, 2001) or the context in which they think about targets of bias (Mitchell, Nosek, & Banaji, 2003). These methods appear to be effective because of the organization of the human knowledge system. Human knowledge is believed to be organized via a semantic network such that activating one concept will lead to activation of related concepts; this is one explanation of implicit bias (Fazio & Olson, 2003). To illustrate, bread and butter are two closely related concepts because of their constant pairing; thus, exposure to the word bread leads people to automatically think (consciously or unconsciously) of butter--this is the central idea of priming (Meyer & Schvaneveldt, 1971). The same process provides the theoretical explanation of why subliminally exposing counselors to words related to the concept African American can lead them to subsequently overestimate hostile behavior in a fictional client (Abreu, 1999). Researchers believe that activation of the concept African American can automatically spread to the closely associated negative concept of hostile (Bargh et al., 1996). Theoretically, counseling students' implicit bias could be influenced if the activation is redirected from negative concepts to positive concepts.

To accomplish a change in activation, counselor educators could teach the skill of intentionally accessing positive concepts rather than common negative stereotypes. For example, counseling students whose automatic stereotype of very old individuals is that they are feeble and slow could identify very old individuals who demonstrate the opposite characteristics and use them as prototypes. Researchers have validated this approach by showing that exposure to positively represented members of groups that are discriminated against reduces implicit bias (Dasgupta & Greenwald, 2001). To encourage this process, counselor educators could have students research and reflect upon specific admired people from multicultural populations. This self-reflective writing could be used by students to form counterstereotypes. If performed deeply and repeatedly throughout the curriculum, such reflection could increase the automatic activation of positive rather than negative concepts because the prototypical member of each group will be a positively represented individual rather than a negatively stereotyped one.

Thinking about targets of bias in different contexts is also believed to reduce implicit bias (Mitchell et al., 2003). To illustrate, a counselor educator could construct an IAT using stimuli representing admired Hispanic athletes and disliked European American politicians. With such an IAT, counseling students could categorize the concepts good and bad with the concepts Hispanic/European American or with the concepts athlete/politician. For students who held negative stereotypes of persons of Hispanic descent, implicit bias toward Hispanics would be expected to emerge when the stimuli were categorized by ethnicity, but a preference for Hispanic athletes would likely emerge for these same students when the stimuli were categorized by occupation. In other words, there is implicit bias toward Hispanics as an ethnic group but less implicit bias when they are thought of as members of a popular occupation. Counselor educators applying this technique could require students to think about people from underrepresented groups in multiple and divergent contexts. Clients could be associated with the concern that led them to seek counseling rather than their race. Classmates could be thought of in the context of graduate students rather than as members of a sexual minority. Mentors could be considered as professors rather than as immigrants. To be clear, this is not an argument for color blindness. Rather, the suggestion is to have counseling students intentionally challenge the unspoken negative associations and patterns of activation that underlie implicit bias.


Reviews of experimental studies indicate that explicit bias is rarely documented among counselors (Boysen, 2009; Garb, 1997). In contrast, the few studies of implicit bias among counselors have consistently documented significant levels of bias (Abreu, 1999; Boysen & Vogel, 2008; Castillo et al., 2007). Such results suggest that even counseling students who have achieved conscious acceptance of diversity may still possess implicit biases that could affect their ability to engage in multiculturally competent practice. Therefore, addressing knowledge, awareness, and skill related to explicit and implicit bias is essential to multicultural competency. Embracing this change, however, has the promise of increasing counselors' cultural competence in ways that are unlikely through an exclusive focus on explicit attitudes.

Implicit bias research is conducted primarily in the laboratory; therefore, much work is left to be done to fully understand its impact on counseling. The most obvious gap in knowledge is that researchers have never measured counselors' implicit bias using a tool such as the IAT and then explored the relation of implicit bias to competency in working with diverse clients. Researchers have, however, documented microaggressions exhibited by counselors in therapeutic and professional settings (Constantine, 2007; Constantine et al., 2008). Research on subtle social biases in the laboratory has indicated that levels of implicit bias may predict counselors' tendency to commit behaviors that qualify as microaggressions (Bessenoff & Sherman, 2000; Dasgupta & Rivera, 2006; Dovidio et al., 1997; Gawronski et al., 2003; Hugenberg & Bodenhausen, 2003, 2004; McConnell & Leibold, 2001; Neumann et al., 2004; Rydell & McConnell, 2006). Thus, future researchers could consider integrating the fields of implicit bias and microaggression by assessing both of them among counseling students. It is highly likely that implicit bias will predict counseling students' tendency to commit microaggressions.

Future research could also focus on validating the methods for reducing counseling students' implicit bias suggested in this article. Although each method is consistent with theoretical explanations of implicit bias and was demonstrated as efficacious in the laboratory, little research indicates that efforts to reduce implicit bias outside of the laboratory are effective. The two extant efforts to assess the impact of multicultural counseling training on implicit bias produced conflicting results. Castillo et al. (2007) found that multicultural training reduced implicit bias, but Boysen and Vogel (2008) found no relation between counseling students' level of training and their implicit bias. Overall, research has indicated that the multicultural training provided to counseling students is effective at influencing their rule based system and explicit attitudes (Smith, Constantine, Dunn, Dinehart, & Montoya, 2006); it is now time to start the process of assessing for similar efficacy with regard to the associative system and implicit attitudes.

Despite its extensive research base, practical implications, and relevance to multicultural ideals, implicit bias has rarely been specifically addressed in the counseling literature. Unfortunately, failure to address implicit bias is likely to hinder multicultural competency. Competencies related to multicultural knowledge, awareness, and skill (Arredondo et al., 1996) dictate that counselors know what implicit bias is, be aware of their own level of implicit bias, and work to overcome implicit biases. An initial step in that process is specifically addressing implicit bias during the education of counselors.


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Guy A. Boysen, Department of Psychology, State University of New York (SUNY), Fredonia. Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Guy A. Boysen, Department of Psychology, SUNY, W357 Thompson Hall, Fredonia, NY 14063 (e-mail:
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Title Annotation:Current Issues
Author:Boysen, Guy A.
Publication:Counselor Education and Supervision
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 1, 2010
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