Exploring the Role of Altruism on Counselor Implicit Bias and Adapting the National Institutes of Health Implicit Bias Training for Counselors in the United States

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Allen, Crissa Jewel

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East Carolina University


Counselors continue to make biased decisions negatively impacting Black American clients. Research underscores implicit bias, defined as unconsciously held prejudiced beliefs, is a major source of bias effecting mental health treatment for diverse cultures. However, despite efforts to mitigate such bias, namely through the emergence of implicit bias trainings, counselors continue to make biased decisions negatively impacting Black American clients. The current study seeks to more comprehensively understand why. The reason posited in the current study is the counseling profession’s altruistic nature. Altruism is defined as a prosocial helping behavior shaped by sociocultural context that is fundamentally ego driven because of its social rewards. As the counseling profession is altruistic, counselors may make decisions based from America’s implicit prejudiced cultural values and their own egoic tendencies to promote their own social acceptance. Further, due to favorable perceptions of altruism and altruistic behaviors, counselors within the counseling professions have access to moral power. Counselors are therefore praised for their unconscious harmful behavior and use their authority in morality to perpetuate damaging prejudicial beliefs unknowingly. As research on implicit bias indicates increased power increases bias effecting decisions, counselors given moral power through their association with altruism may be more likely to make biased decisions. Additionally, due to favorable perceptions of altruism, counselors are protected from ill beliefs about their decision making preserving biased tendencies. They may be less likely to see their own bias as their decisions are reinforced by the cultural beliefs of the surrounding society, increasing a counselor’s implicit bias. As such, counselors may not be aware of the harm their altruistic tendencies can cause. Counselors’ views of themselves as good intentioned and the perceptions of others reinforcing their goodness within a biased society warrant increased concern regarding treatment outcomes for clients of diverse cultures, especially Black American clients considering American historical context. Posited in the current study is implicit bias trainings may be ineffective for counselors because they lack analysis of this true helper culture, regarding American altruism, in attempts to mitigate bias. Further, research on implicit bias, as it has evolved, has lost its analysis of power. Incorporating altruism in this context serves as a surrogate for counselor culture and reintroduces power into implicit bias research while revealing elements of power not typically researched in the counseling relationship. The purpose of the study is to explore the role of altruism on implicit bias in counselors. In exploring such, the current study will utilize a mixed methods approach to a) explore relationships between counselor implicit bias and altruism and b) adapt the National Institutes of Health’s (NIH) implicit bias training module to address counselors. While the current NIH implicit bias training is evidenced based, it is missing key characteristics for long term efficacy in mitigating implicit bias. Further, the NIH implicit bias training module is broad, addressing multiple healthcare disciplines. Given interventions are more effective when tailored to a specific population, the current study will home in, adding altruism and other suggested additions adapting the module for counselors.