Attributing Discrimination to Implicit Bias: Consequences for Perceived Accountability and Punishment

Date of Award

Spring 2021

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



First Advisor

Richeson, Jennifer


The term implicit bias is becoming more popular among the general public. Although researchers have spent decades studying implicit bias and its effects on behavior, little is known about how laypeople make sense of discrimination that is attributed to implicit bias. In this dissertation, I explore how attributing discrimination to implicit bias shapes the extent to which people hold perpetrators accountable and support punishing them for their discriminatory behavior attributed to implicit, compared to explicit bias. I begin in Chapter 1 by reviewing the limited literature that has attempted to address this topic, discussing how implicit bias attributions relate to our existing moral and legal frameworks. I hypothesize that because implicit biases are typically defined as unconscious, people will hold perpetrators less accountable for discriminatory behaviors attributed to them. In Chapter 2, I find support for this hypothesis with evidence that when people read news articles detailing scientific research on discrimination caused by implicit (relative to explicit) bias, they hold the perpetrators less accountable and are less supportive of punishing them. In Chapter 3, I build on this research by exploring if this reduced accountability effect for discrimination attributed to implicit bias is attenuated for women in regards to gender discrimination. Although I find consistent evidence that women, who share a gender group membership with the victim, hold the perpetrator more accountable and are more supportive of punishment in general, I find no evidence that sharing a gender group membership moderates the effect of bias attribution. That is, both men and women hold perpetrators of gender discrimination less accountable and are less supportive of punishment when the behavior is attributed to implicit versus explicit bias. In Chapter 4, I test a viable intervention for reduced accountability effects when discrimination is attributed to implicit bias: perspective-taking with the victim. Despite existing evidence that perspective-taking with the victim ought to encourage people to focus on the harm rather than the intent of the perpetrator, I find no evidence that perspective-taking with the victim increases accountability and punishment for discrimination attributed to implicit relative to explicit bias. However, Chapter 4 builds on the previous chapters by demonstrating that when discrimination is attributed to implicit bias people perceive the behavior to be less intentional than when the same behavior is attributed to explicit bias. In Chapter 5, I close by discussing the implications of this work and possible future directions.

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