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Med Educ. 2011 Aug;45(8):768-76. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2923.2011.04026.x.

Non-conscious bias in medical decision making: what can be done to reduce it?

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Department of Psychology, School of Mind, Brain & Behavior, College of Science, University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ 85721, USA.



Non-conscious stereotyping and prejudice contribute to racial and ethnic disparities in health care. Contemporary training in cultural competence is insufficient to reduce these problems because even educated, culturally sensitive, egalitarian individuals can activate and use their biases without being aware they are doing so. However, these problems can be reduced by workshops and learning modules that focus on the psychology of non-conscious bias. THE PSYCHOLOGY OF NON-CONSCIOUS BIAS: Research in social psychology shows that over time stereotypes and prejudices become invisible to those who rely on them. Automatic categorisation of an individual as a member of a social group can unconsciously trigger the thoughts (stereotypes) and feelings (prejudices) associated with that group, even if these reactions are explicitly denied and rejected. This implies that, when activated, implicit negative attitudes and stereotypes shape how medical professionals evaluate and interact with minority group patients. This creates differential diagnosis and treatment, makes minority group patients uncomfortable and discourages them from seeking or complying with treatment.


Cultural competence training involves teaching students to use race and ethnicity to diagnose and treat minority group patients, but to avoid stereotyping them by over-generalising cultural knowledge to individuals. However, the Culturally and Linguistically Appropriate Services (CLAS) standards do not specify how these goals should be accomplished and psychological research shows that common approaches like stereotype suppression are ineffective for reducing non-conscious bias. To effectively address bias in health care, training in cultural competence should incorporate research on the psychology of non-conscious stereotyping and prejudice.


Workshops or other learning modules that help medical professionals learn about non-conscious processes can provide them with skills that reduce bias when they interact with minority group patients. Examples of such skills in action include automatically activating egalitarian goals, looking for common identities and counter-stereotypical information, and taking the perspective of the minority group patient.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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