Addressing Barriers to Cultural Sensibility Learning: Lesson from Social Cognition Theory
Understanding subconscious biases, their pervasiveness, and their impact on perceptions, interactions, and analyses, helps prepare lawyers to represent people from cultural and racial backgrounds different from their own, and to address both individual and institutional injustice. Two law student surveys suggest many students believe lawyers are less susceptible than clients to having, or acting upon, stereotypes or biases. The survey results also indicate that many students suffer from bias blind spot – i.e. they believe that while others cannot recognize when they are acting based upon stereotypical beliefs and biases, the students know when they are doing so. The survey results suggest some law students: 1. do not understand the pervasiveness of bias, even in well-meaning people; 2. do not recognize that legal analytical training is unlikely to trump a lifetime of subconscious cognitive processes; and 3. may resist education aimed at helping them recognize how their own biases affect their interactions, in part because they believe that they already understand and can recognize their biases. This article argues that the survey results demonstrate a need to address students’ misconceptions about lawyers’, and students’ own, susceptibility to subconscious biases. It discusses how exposure to social cognition literature on topics such as aversive racism, implicit bias, confirmation bias and bias blind spot may deepen students’ understanding of subconscious biases, their pervasiveness, and their impact on all people’s perceptions, interactions and analyses. That literature may also help students understand their potential resistance to learning about their own biases and help educators understand how best to overcome student resistance to learning about how cultural biases and stereotypes impact individual and institutional decision-making. In light of the survey results, the article urges schools to consider using social cognition theory as the cornerstone of a program of legal education that recognizes the need to infuse the curriculum with an awareness of the role culture plays in the lawyering process. Finally, it provides some concrete examples of how educators can integrate discussions of cultural biases and perspectives into a wide range of law school courses.