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Police implicit bias training may impact belief but not behavior, WashU study finds

Calvin Lai, assistant professor of psychological and brain sciences at Washington University
Emily Woodbury
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Calvin Lai, who has a doctorate in social psychology, is an assistant professor of psychological and brain sciences at Washington University.

The daylong implicit bias-oriented training programs used by most police departments in the U.S. are unlikely to reduce racial inequity in policing, according to a recent study by Washington University researcher Calvin Lai.

“Officers often reported buying into the ideas that were taught in the training,” the assistant professor of psychological and brain sciences said. “But when it came to following through in the way that matters, in terms of what they are doing on the job, we didn’t see evidence, at least about one month later, that officers were actually changing up what they were doing.”

Lai’s work was published in the journal Psychological Science on Feb. 3. He joined Monday’s St. Louis on the Air to discuss the study and how police departments might interpret — and act on — its findings.

“There are so many of these articles that are like, ‘Does diversity training work? Do implicit bias trainings work?’ I think a lot of us think of it as a yes/no proposition, but even in our own study, we found some ways in which the trainings were incredibly effective,” Lai said.

“If you teach officers about bias, they are believing it for at least a month later,” he added. “But on the other hand, we're not finding great evidence in terms of actual behavior change. And so that's what I mean about moving away from yes/no [premise], and more of thinking about: ‘What types of outcomes do you care about? And does the training kind of hit those outcomes?’”

To hear more about Lai’s research on implicit bias trainings, listen to St. Louis on the Air on Apple Podcast, Spotify, Google Podcast, Stitcher, or by clicking the play button below.

Listen: How well does implicit bias training change officer behavior?

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is produced by Miya Norfleet, Emily Woodbury, Danny Wicentowski, Elaine Cha and Alex Heuer. Avery Rogers is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr. Send questions and comments about this story to talk@stlpr.org

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Emily is the senior producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.

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