January 22, 2014, by Jules Holroyd

Introducing the Project Blog


Welcome to the blog that charts the progress of our three year Leverhulme Trust funded research project, on Bias and Blame.

Suppose it turns out that our behaviour is influenced in subtle ways such that we often unintentionally treat people differentially, or unfairly. Many studies in psychology have found this to be the case: for example, the CVs of men and women are evaluated differently (Valian, 1999); CVs with white-sounding and black-sounding names are evaluated differently (Dovidio & Gaertner, 2000); in pictures showing a person holding an ambiguous object, that object is more likely to be judged to be a weapon when the person depicted is black (Payne 2006). These effects are often found even in fair-minded, anti-racist and anti-sexist individuals. Such behavioural effects are attributed to ‘implicit biases’ or ‘implicit associations’: fast, automatic connections that operate beyond the reach of direct or reflective control. You can take an online Implicit Association Test, (from which the above screen shot is taken) to see whether you express any implicit biases.

This is worrying. So how could we change our judgements and behaviours so that these kinds of ‘implicit biases’ have less influence, or are eliminated? One strategy is to remove the information that permits biases to operate: anonymise CVs, for example. But this is not always possible. Psychologists have studies other ways of limiting the expression of implicit biases, or trying to change them. (We’ll talk about some of these in more detail in later posts).

What we are investigating is whether moral interactions have a role to play in mitigating the influence of these biases. Whether or not individuals are or are not responsible for expressing implicit biases, there is a further question about whether blaming each other for them helps or hinders us in limiting the expression of them. If it turns out blaming does help each other to limit the expression of implicit biases, then there is a reason counting in favour of blaming each other. (Before knowing whether to blame, we would also have to consider other reasons, such as whether people in fact are blameworthy for manifesting these biases; and how easy or costly it is to blame people in these ways. We hope to address this in the theoretical part of our project also).

As far as we know, no one has asked or answered this question. We’re aiming to bring together methods from empirical psychology and analytic philosophy to address it. We hope that our research will yield important and interesting findings that help us to understand how we should interact as moral agents who are also biased beings. And we hope to benefit from useful discussion, on this blog, of the research questions we encounter along the way!


Jules Holroyd – Principle Investigator, Department of Philosophy, University of Nottingham

Tom Stafford – Co-investigator, Department of Psychology, University of Sheffield

Robin Scaife – Post-doc, Department of Psychology, University of Sheffield

And you? We’re seeking a PhD student – Department of Philosophy, University of Nottingham

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