One again: Diversity training doesn’t work, ditto with microaggression training, implicit bias training, or any mandatory DEI training

January 16, 2022 • 11:00 am

This is not from some crackpot site, as you’ll have heard of Real Clear Science and know that it’s legit. But if you have questions about the author’s contentions, he gives a list of references supporting each one at the site (click on screenshot below to read).

Note that the article is from late 2020, so if you know of more recent references that overturn al-Gharbi’s contentions, by all means put them in the comments. The author, by the way, is a is a Paul F. Lazarsfeld Fellow in Sociology at Columbia University, and I fear for his future! Sometimes telling the truth gets you severely damaged in today’s political climate.

Now I doubt that there are many schools or big companies that don’t offer diversity training—mandatory or otherwise—with many having units on microaggressions and implicit bias training as well as DEI training.  The year-old data show that none of these is effective in reducing bias; in fact, they can be counterproductive, increasing bias, resentment, or divisiveness.  In this way, DEI training is mainly performative.

Why, then, are these courses still on ta?  I think the answer is obvious: universities and companies need to show that they’re doing something, about the issue du jour, so what better way to demonstrate that your heart’s in the right place than to hire consultants to “train” your people. Sadly, the heart may be (and usually is) in the right place, but the head is not.

Now the author has previously discussed—and endorsed—viewpoint diversity in universities, so he’s not an appointment of that kind of diversity. The question that arises is whether viewpoint diversity is best expressed as assuming homogeneous viewpoints of a given gender, sex, or ethnic group.  I won’t get into that, as you can read al-Gharbi’s piece on this issue. But I don’t think anybody would contest the notion that having a diversity of views in a university is a good thing. That’s assumed in every argument for freedom of speech.

The question in this article is whether such a diversity is actually promoted by various forms of DEI training. All I’ll do is list al-Gharbi’s contentions and let you know that there is a longish list of references adduced to support each contention.

I’ve put the contentions in bold and everything that’s a quote is indented.

1.) Historically, many rationales for diversity training have proven, upon later analysis, to not work very well.  

Three references are given for this claim

2.) Training is generally ineffective. 

The stated goals of these training programs vary, from helping to increase hiring and retention of people from historically marginalized and underrepresented groups, to eliminating prejudicial attitudes or behaviors to members of said groups, to reducing conflict and enhancing cooperation and belonging among all employees. Irrespective of the stated goals of the programs, they are overwhelmingly ineffective with respect to those goals. Generally speaking, they do not increase diversity in the workplace, they do not reduce harassment or discrimination, they do not lead to greater intergroup cooperation and cohesion – consequently, they do not increase productivity. More striking: many of those tasked with ensuring compliance with these training programs recognize them as ineffective (see Rynes & Rosen 1995, p. 258).

Eight references are given for this claim.

3.)  Training often reinforces biases.

By articulating various stereotypes associated with particular groups, emphasizing the salience of those stereotypes, and then calling for their suppression, they often end up reinforcing them in participants’ minds. Sometimes they even implant new stereotypes (for instance, if participants didn’t previously have particular stereotypes for Vietnamese people, or much knowledge about them overall, but were introduced to common stereotypes about this group through training intended to dispel said stereotypes).

Other times, they can fail to improve negative perceptions about the target group, yet increase negative views about others. For instance, an empirical investigation of ‘white privilege’ training found that it did nothing to make participants more sympathetic to minorities – it just increased resentment towards lower-income whites.

Encouraging people to ignore racial and cultural differences often results in diminished cooperation across racial lines. Meanwhile, multicultural training — emphasizing those differences — often ends up reinforcing race essentialism among participants. It is not clear what the best position between these poles is (such that these negative side effects can be avoided), let alone how to consistently strike that balance in training.

Six references are given for this claim

4.)Training Can Increase Biased Behavior, Minority Turnover

Many diversity-related training programs describe bias and discrimination as rampant. One unfortunate consequence of depicting these attitudes and behaviors as common is that it makes many feel more comfortable expressing biased attitudes or behaving in discriminatory ways. Insofar as it is depicted as ubiquitous, diversity-related training can actually normalize bias. . . .

Eight references are given for this claim

5.) Training Often Alienates People from High-Status Groups, Reduces Morale

Diversity-related training programs often depict people from historically marginalized and disenfranchised groups as important and worthwhile, celebrating their heritage and culture, while criticizing the dominant culture as fundamentally depraved (racist, sexist, sadistic, etc.). People from minority groups are discussed in overwhelmingly positive terms, while people from majority groups are characterized as typically (and uniquely) ignorant, insensitive or outright malicious with respect to those who are different than them. Members of the majority group are told to listen to, and validate, the perspectives of people from historically marginalized or disadvantaged groups — even as they are instructed to submit their own feelings and perspectives to intense scrutiny.

In short, there is a clear double-standard in many of these programs with respect to how members of dominant groups (typically men, whites and/or heterosexuals) are described as compared to members of minority groups (i.e. women, ethnic/ racial minorities, LGBTQ employees). The result is that many members from the dominant group walk away from the training believing that themselves, their culture, their perspectives and interests are not valued at the institution – certainly not as much as those of minority team members — reducing their morale and productivity.

Five references are given for this claim

6.) Implicit bias training doesn’t work.

Implicit attitudes are one of the most commonly relied-upon constructs in contemporary diversity-related training. However, there are severe problems with these constructs – as hammered home by meta-analysis after meta-analysis: it is not clear precisely what isbeing measured on implicit attitude tests; implicit attitudes do not effectively predict actual discriminatory behavior; most interventions to attempts to change implicit attitudes are ineffective (effects, when present, tend to be small and fleeting). Moreover, there is no evidence that changing implicit attitudes has any significant, let alone durable, impact on reducing biased or discriminatory behaviors. In short, the construct itself has numerous validity issues, and the training has no demonstrable benefit.

Five references are given for this claim

7.) Training to avoid “microaggressions” doesn’t work.

. . . However, although the microaggressions framework goes back to 1974, there is virtually no systematic research detailing if and how microaggressions are harmful, for whom, and under what circumstances (indeed, there is not even robust conceptual clarity in the literature as to what constitutes a microaggression). There is no systematic empirical evidence that training on microaggressions has any significant or long-term effects on behavior, nor that it correlates with any other positive institutional outcomes.

In fact, when presented with canonical microaggressions, black and Hispanic respondents overwhelmingly find them to be inoffensive – and we have ample reason to believe that sensitizing people to perceive and take greater offense at these slights actually would cause harm: the evidence is clear and abundant that increased perceptions of racism have adverse mental and physical consequences for minorities. In short, not only is there no evidence that training on microaggressions is valuable for improving the well-being of people from historically marginalized or disadvantaged groups, there is reason to believe it could actually be counter-productive to that end.

Two references are given for this claim, one written by the author

8.) Mandatory Training Causes Additional Blowback

Although diversity-related training programs are generally ineffective, and often bring negative side-effects, they tend to work better (or at least, be less harmful) when they are opt-in. Mandatory training causes people to engage with the materials and exercises in the wrong frame of mind: adversarial and resentful. Consequently, mandatory training often leads to more negative feelings and behaviors, both towards the company and minority co-workers. This effect is especially pronounced among the people who need the training most.  Yet roughly 80% of diversity-related training programs in the U.S. seem to be mandatory.

If an institution is going to include diversity-related training, it should offer it as a resource for those who want to learn more. . .

Seven references are given for this claim

9.) Training Comes at the Expense of Other Priorities

We are in a period of educational austerity. Creating, implementing and ensuring compliance with diversity-related training programs is expensive. In a world where these training programs consistently advanced diversity and inclusion goals within an organization, or enhanced intergroup cooperation and overall productivity, then these costs could be justified – even during a time of belt-tightening. However, it’s a different dynamic when the training is typically ineffective or even counterproductive. Worse, it often crowds out much more substantial efforts that could be undertaken to actually enhance diversity and inclusion within institutions.

Now the last point is moot if the others be true, so it’s not really necessary to discuss it.

About more recent findings, all I can say is that I’ve paid attention to the literature, and haven’t seen these nine conclusions overturned at all. In fact, they seem to have been supported even more strongly. But this raises one questions beyond, “why are so many companies and universities doing it, then?” (Another answer beyond “it makes them look good” is to lessen their legal liability in bias cases. But if training doesn’t work, how much liability does that lessen?)

The question is this: “What do we do, then?”

This presumes there is indeed a problem of racial tension and a problem of racism in companies and universities.  I don’t think anyone can deny that. Whether the racism is “structural”—built into the system—is in most cases dubious, but every organization has racism because every organism has racists. The question then becomes, “if this is a serious problem, how do we defuse it?”

My own way of phrasing the relevant question is “How do we reduce the divisiveness and mutual antipathy between groups?”

I am no expert here, but suggest a few things:

a.) DO NOT create and enforce speech codes, and DO NOT, for the reasons stated above, enforce bias training. For bias training all too often turns out to be ideological brainwashing, setting group against group.

b.) DO create discussions about the First Amendment for entering students to take. (And push for a Kalven-like amendment in your school.)

c.) DO NOT separate groups by creating “affinity housing” or any such segregated institution (graduations included) that is gender- or race-specific.  In fact, try to bring people together, but not to discuss their differences or to air grievances. It may be my kumbayah attitude, but I feel that the more experience people have with each other, the more they apprehend and appreciate their common humanity. As the old song from “South Pacific” goes “You have to be carefully taught.”  DEI training is a form of careful teaching that sets group against group.

d.) DO NOT racialize everything. It is divisive and does not serve to create a community of supportive people.

e.) Create a supportive network for individuals based on their personal issues. One way is therapy, and there is a case to be made to have gender- or race-sensitive therapists on tap.

This program won’t endear me to many, I know, but if the present practices aren’t working, we have to think of others. Not just think of them, either—we have to see if they “work” by achieving the goals they’re supposed to achieve. As far as possible, interventions should be empirically supported.

Oh, and about inequities: differences in representation of groups that, to a Kendi-an, are prima facie evidence of bigotry. That’s a much more complicated issue that I’ve discussed before and will take up again some time. But not today!

27 thoughts on “One again: Diversity training doesn’t work, ditto with microaggression training, implicit bias training, or any mandatory DEI training

  1. Reading this, it occurs to me that “performative” should be the leading candidate for Word of the Decade. It aptly describes so much of what’s going on these days. And, although I normally hate “both sides” arguments, this is one case where it applies.

  2. This is simply more classes/speeches in behavior training. Generally a waste of time and money. I do not see this as any different from sexual harassment training that was very popular throughout the 80s and 90s. Maybe still is in many companies and firms. The company I worked for practiced this training for years and it did nothing to reduce the tide. You weed out sexual harassment in the institution by implementing a professional process with trained investigators who follow the process to conclusion and where necessary eliminate any employee that do these things. You should handle the diversity in the same way. If you allow known bigots to remain and be promoted in the company, how does giving training classes do anything?

    1. I could see sexual harassment training working as it sends a message that the company is watching. Of course, the “watching” may be just performative but even that may make those who might practice sexual harassment to think twice before doing it. They’ll probably just “take it outside” but that’s still a win, at least for the company and its workers.

      1. Sending messages is what training is. As the post says, mostly useless. A person spent a lot of years becoming the bigot he is and training classes mean nothing to him. Start removing it from the workforce – then they pay attention.

  3. According to the economist Mark Perry, 132 “diversicrats” comprise the nomenklatura of Ohio State’s DEI bureaucracy at an annual cost to the university of more than thirteen million dollars. Could a rational person possibly argue that this constitutes anything other than abject obeisance to the regnant ideology of “wokeness”?

  4. This presumes there is indeed a problem of racial tension and a problem of racism in companies and universities. I don’t think anyone can deny that. […] every organization has racism because every organism has racists.

    At the risk of being argumentative, I’ll deny it. At least, with regard to UK universities nowadays (the “nowadays” being important), I don’t think they have “a problem of racism”. Or, anyhow, I’ve seen no substantial evidence of such (though I’m open to being presented with evidence).

    I guess it’s true that “every organisation has racists”, but at some level they are sufficiently little impact that the organisation itself does not “have a problem” of racism.

    1. A Washington Post study shows the congress has had more than 1700 slave owners as members of congress over the years. Do you think that had some affect on legislation?

      1. Wasn’t slave owning abolished a fair while ago now? I suspect that slave owners have little bearing on whether universities in the English-speaking Western world are today racist.

      2. Quite possibly, but you don’t say how many in Congress were not slave owners, offer no specific examples of current laws (Coel did emphasise ‘nowadays’) reflecting the interests of slave owners, and I presume there are many laws where owning slaves is no more relevant than owning pets.

        And if I also can imply without offering specific evidence, do you you think a block of bureaucrats whose continued employment depends more on their ability to find racism than to eliminate it has some effect on institutional policy?

        1. Current laws reflecting the interest of slave owners? So that is the question you have from the statistic. How about asking how much racism would remain in their thinking and law making. As you might guess, the number of slave owners did not go way just because the civil war ended or the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments were passed. Many of those former slave owners remained in the congress for many years after 1865. They go all the way up and into the 1900s. Being so tied up with Universities in the English Speaking Western world might be part of your problem. Are either of you even aware of what the Supreme court has done with the civil rights act of 1965. I suppose not. And what many red states have since done with the voting laws? Examples of current law you want. Give us a break

          1. My comments are specifically about English-speaking universities, since they are very keen on DEI training. Feel free to present good evidence of racism in those institutions today.

            Of course, evidence of anti-Asian discrimination by Ivy League universities is easy to find. Evidence of anti-white rhetoric is also rampant, though so far it’s been of little consequence. As regards black students, it’s easy to find lots of evidence of preferential treatment in admissions and advancements. There’s also lots of evidence of black students’ concerns being taken very seriously, so that, for example, one of them can make up allegations and get four low-ranking white staff fired. Or they can ask for a large rock to be moved, because they dislike it, and they get indulged.

            But, as for anti-black racism in English-speaking universities today, please present evidence.

            1. since you suddenly only want to talk about Universities I will pass. I care very little about that. But you referred to organizations in your first comments. I am talking about far more than at school.

              1. My claim was not that *no* institutions have a “racism problem”, but that many, many do not (including many of those keenest on DEI training), and universities were my examples.

    2. I share your viewpoint, Coel. In both my personal and professional associations, I had been quietly celebrating the lessening of racism to really its disappearance over the last couple of decades. I had been proud of my small contribution to this lessening and all-but elimination of racism. Then, in 2020, I, and I believe civilized society as a whole, was sucker punched by the KenDiAngelists who proclaimed that I, a white man whose grandparents fled war-torn Eastern Europe over a hundred years ago, am irredeemably racist and that the institutions to which I proudly belonged harbored structural racism. After I shook off the initial stun of that punch, I have been steadily working to restore a healthy, celebratory attitude derived from the fact that our present-day civilized society is the least racist in the history of humanity. I join with you and others who argue for accentuating this positive viewpoint.

  5. Bravo. But typo in the 5th paragraph’s first sentence: “Now the author has previously discussed—and endorsed—viewpoint diversity in universities, so he’s not an appointment of that kind of diversity.” Appointment should be opponent.

    The performative Left’s specialité du maison has been counterproductivity for a long time. By
    ~1970, the movement against US intervention in the Vietnamese civil war was powerfully undermined by the performatives, dressing themselves up as US Viet Cong; reaction against their charades was an invaluable help to Nixon’s landslide re-election in 1972, and generated the “Reagan Democrats” of the 1980 election. My impression is that a whole generation of performatives dressed themselves up in academic cap and gown in the 1980s, to create the “grievance studies” academic pantomines; graduates of these charades are now engaged in bringing counterproductivity to the whole society.

    1. When I think of counterproductive programs, my first example comes from the Right: Abstinence-Based Sex Education. Turns out telling teens little to nothing about contraception increases the teen birth rate. And still they persist …

      From talking to proponents over the years, they seem to be dismissing the statistical Big Picture for the sake of a small morality play: a teenager who otherwise would have lost their purity is saved, though many are lost who, frankly, would have eventually been lost anyway. People are *so* bad.

      It makes me wonder if something similar might apply to diversity and anti-racism training. Forget the damned and concentrate on that glowing success story, whatever that may be. Probably not a big factor, assuming the analogy applies at all.

  6. According to the website of Princeton U P, Musa al-Gharbi’s new book (We Have Never Been Woke: Social Justice Discourse, Inequality, and the Rise of a New Elite) is to be published next year.

    1. Thank you for this post. I just heard a notice on the local PBS station – WOUB, from Ohio U. in Athens, OH – that al-Gharbi will be speaking on the campus this coming Thursday. Didn’t know until your message that he has a book, although his talk has the same title. I am 17 miles from the campus, seems well worthy of making the trip. And I’m guessing his book will be available for purchase.

  7. +10 to everything Professor Ceiling Cat said.

    I am a white woman and a new faculty member at an American university. A few months ago I met a fellow faculty member who is a Black woman. And the sad thing is, when I met her, one of my thoughts was, “Uh-oh! She is Black, and I’m white, so I have to be really extra careful not to say or do anything that could possibly be seen as racist or a microaggression!” This is another unintended consequence of DEI training – if white people buy into it, they’ll walk around constantly afraid of doing a racism, and that will result in all interactions with Black people being stilted and awkward. Said awkwardness will, of course, be seen as Black people as further evidence of white people’s racism.

    And if I ever said the above to a Progressive, they would respond sarcastically, “Oh poor white Karen, worrying about her widdle white feelings being hurt instead of thinking how to be a good ally for Black people!”

  8. This morning on CBC Radio 1,The Sunday Magazine, host Piya Chattopadhyay talked to author Naben Ruthnum about his new book “A Hero of Our Time”

    In his comic new novel A Hero of Our Time, Canadian author Naben Ruthnum delves beneath the surface of corporate diversity initiatives. He speaks with Chattopadhyay about the book and his frank and funny take on why even the most well-meaning initiatives need to be interrogated in order to achieve meaningful change.

    Neither of the protagonists, the white female manager nor the brown employee come out looking to well in this novel.

  9. Hmm. I spent much of my working life in corporate America, where I suffered through a variety of training intended to change my supposed behavior. None of it worked.

    We’re very good at training non-human animals and changing their behavior in the ways we want. The essence of successful animal trainers’ approach is consistent and sustained reinforcement of desired behavior and consistent and sustained non-reinforcement of undesired behavior.

    Training people, in corporate settings and elsewhere, requires sustained attention to what they do and appropriate reinforcement (or none). It requires managers to manage. This is work. Small wonder that my corporate overseers preferred quick, if sometimes expensive, fixes to actually doing their jobs.

  10. I’m as skeptical of the soft science here as I am of work courses that aren’t targeted on learning work methods.

    What could be useful is studies of decision making in models. I’m not familiar with them but it seems there is evidence that groups under certain conditions reliably makes “the best choice” [ ]. Unfortunately those conditions is pretty much the opposite of being informed by “a diversity of views” at the time of choice. But having a panoply of choices from having diversity must then be the prerequisite.

  11. Of course DEI training will have counterproductive if any effect. People hate being reformed, regarded as sinners by default, and robbed of their time for work or leisure. And as Drosophilist remarked, people hate being kept in fear.

  12. I think many companies are talked into running courses that they do not need but as they have money set aside for such things the money has to be used up or the budget will be lower next year.
    I did a short fill in job at an international drug manufacturing company and whilst there I found a document in the library that was an external consultants assessment of one of the employees. I asked the employee if I could read the assessment and talk to her about it afterwards. My impression was that the assessment was nothing more than a cold reading filled with Barnum statements. I asked the employee for her feeling on the document and her reply was what one would expect from such a document, that it was partially correct but one or two things were definitely incorrect. The company had paid millions of dollars for this pointless exercise and probably used the results when assessing their employees futures with the company.

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