The Prejudiced Pig inside Your Mind, Part I: How Directors Can Win the War Against Implicit Bias

Christopher Thurber, PhD, ABPP
March 2017

I got a Nakamichi cassette deck for Christmas in 1983. It had two kinds of Dolby noise reduction, auto-detection of tape substrate (normal vs. chromium dioxide vs. metal), manual level adjustments (crucial for creating stellar mix tapes gifted to would-be romances), and a ridiculously slow eject speed that made my inner gearhead swoon. My maternal grandfather, who was spending the holidays with us, asked for a demonstration that afternoon but recoiled when he saw the brand.

"Nakamichi? Why did your parents get you a Nakamichi? What's wrong with RCA?"

"Poppie," I said, mistaking his disdain for nostalgia, "I don't think RCA makes stereo equipment anymore. It's been a long time since Victrolas were in use."

"Well, it hasn't been a long time since World War II," he quipped. It was then I remembered that Poppie had been drafted into the Navy and fought the Japanese from the South Pacific island of Eniwetok. Nearly 40 years had passed, but his bias against all things Japanese was as vivid as his combat memories.

Explicit Bias

Explicit biases, such as Poppie's, are conscious and often expressed aloud, by definition. With full awareness, all people favor certain things over other things. Some may favor organic over non-organic produce, public television over commercial television, downhill skiing over cross-country skiing, cotton over polyester, country music over classical, PCs over Macs, or Delta over United. And although some of these examples may generate debate, they are typically specified as preferences rather than biases.

Bias has a negative connotation, leaning more toward prejudice than preference. Favoring vanilla over strawberry won't get you in hot water, but favoring Jews over Muslims, women over men, white people over brown people, sighted people over blind people, gay people over straight people, or citizens over immigrants definitely will. It's human nature to have preferences, even favorites, because it's human nature to love, despite some instinctive egocentrism (Goldschmidt, 2005). It might also be human nature to strive for fairness, and it's definitely human nature to detect injustice and restriction from a young age. (Think campers screaming "Cheater!" or staff protesting their curfew.) The pinch-point is where preference and injustice intersect.

Nobody cries foul if their friend, employee, spouse, neighbor, or co-worker prefers pistachio over chocolate or baseball over cricket. But a predisposition becomes problematic when someone has a bias against skin of a certain color, sexuality of a certain orientation, gender of a certain category, worship of a certain god, or nationality of a certain origin. When liberty and justice are at play, we know it. And we call it bias rather than preference. And when it's our liberty or our justice being compromised, we feel pain. However you judge my grandfather, you must also ask yourself: "What biases do I have based on my life experience?" Whatever answers you find after some honest introspection are your explicit biases. And while some explicit biases are more harmful than others, and many are challenging to change, they are all possible to modify because they are all in our awareness.

If you, as a camp director and former star collegiate athlete, have an explicit bias in favor of jocks or "sporty types" and against "artsy types," that's understandable. Your history has shaped your inclination. But if you would like to create a well-rounded staff, then you have a responsibility to deliberately set your bias aside — to the extent you are able — to hire youth leaders with a broad range of talents. Some may be fantastic soccer players; others may have a knack for paddling canoes and teaching archery; others may have just the right creativity to teach pottery and woodworking. Transforming yourself from partial to impartial may be a challenge, but is possible, thanks to your mindfulness.

My grandfather could tolerate, even appreciate, my beautiful Nakamichi tape deck because he recognized and understood the source of his bias. He was able to set aside his historical hostility and see the quality of this electronic device. He came to see the deck for its inherent worth, rather than prejudging its worth or performance based on its country of origin. Poppie didn't go out and buy himself a rack of Nakamichi components, but he didn't condemn me. And after a few days, he didn't even blame his daughter for purchasing that brand over another. Interestingly, I came to appreciate both the sound quality of my new deck as well as his perspectives on Japan, international conflict, and the Navy. (To test the malleability of your own national biases, read President Roosevelt's letter to Emperor Hirohito, delivered the day before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, at

Explicit biases don't always attenuate. Sometimes, such biases are the source — even the rallying cry — of revolting thought, language , and behavior. Witness white supremacist groups and fringe religious sects who burn effigies of people they hate because those people happen to be members of a racial, sexual, gender, religious, ethnic, or other minority. Even individual politicians, celebrities, and business owners foment hate — even ignite war — by suggesting certain types of people threaten our health and wellness. Fortunately, participating in high-quality education, enforcing legal consequences for hate crimes and discrimination, spending time with people different from us, and setting good examples for our children are all ways to combat explicit bias and the interpersonal violence it can engender (Thurber, 2016).

For millennia, progressive alliances in many cultures throughout the world have fought successfully to raise awareness and diminish the prevalence of explicit bias. Tolerance is a cornerstone of many religions and government constitutions. Much more progress needs to be made, but the trajectory is positive. Unfortunately, there is a more insidious form of injustice that we are only beginning to understand: implicit bias. This form of bias also shapes attitudes and behaviors, but out of our conscious awareness.Implicit bias is therefore invisible, making it sinister and harmful in surprising ways. Worst of all, everyone has implicit biases, even those of us who are acutely aware of our explicit biases.

Implicit Bias

"I'm not a racist," is how you might respond to the suggestion that all people have attitudes about others that unconsciously shape their interpersonal behavior. That defensiveness is a natural reaction to a phenomenon that seems quite unnatural. It's threatening to have someone suggest that you behave in ways that are both socially unacceptable and beyond your control. Yet the assertion, "I'm not a racist" probably means: "I'm not aware of discriminating against people of a certain race."

So what you mean, if you claim not to be prejudiced in any way, is that you don't have any explicit biases. You certainly don't burn crosses, use racial epithets, or ask about a person's political views or sexual orientation during an interview. I mean, come on. Some of your best friends are gay, right? You don't even care what religion someone is, because "that's personal." Fair enough. But what penchants are operating outside of your awareness? That's where things get complicated.

Lexical priming is one psychological phenomenon that reliably demonstrates how unconscious processes shape our thoughts and behaviors (Camblin, Gordon, & Swaab, 2007; Meyer & Schvaneveldt, 1971). Try this exercise. First, grab a pen or a pencil. Now, read this list of words out loud:

rooster | donkey | dog | cat | goat | squirrel | bear | raccoon | monkey | giraffe | rabbit

Next, using your pen or pencil, complete this list of words as quickly as you can by filling in the blanks. Make whatever common English words come to mind.

H _ _ SE
PI _
SH _ _ P
CO _

Good. Most people who try this exercise write HORSE, PIG, SHEEP, and COW rather than HOUSE, PIN, SHARP, and COT. Almost everyone writes at least two animals, and almost no one creates a list of four non-animal words. Why is that, given that the directions did not say anything about making animal words? Why is that, given that some of the non-animal words (e.g., house) appear much more frequently in general speech and writing than the animal words (e.g., horse)? Answer: lexical priming. The conscious activity of naming animals in the first part of the task created an implicit bias toward animal words and away from household words for the fill-in-the-blank part of the task.

Hard to believe? Try the preceding exercise with a few friends. There will be variations in their answers, of course, but you'll start to see an unconscious bias for animal words over household words.

Still not convinced? Try a variation where you have a few different friends recite this list:

window | needle | door | knife | blanket | chimney | floor | bed | carpet | thread | curtain

Then, have them complete the same list of fill-in-the-blank words. You'll see they are more likely than the first group to come up with HOUSE, PIN, SHARP, and COT. Or, they might come up with PIT or PIP or CON or COB, but probably not PIG or COW. And now you know why.

Lexical priming activates conceptually similar words. That may seem like common sense. What is uncommon is people's lack of awareness about how an unconscious process has shaped their behavior. Most people who try a lexical priming task will report feeling free to spell whatever they wanted to, free to think about and write whatever came to mind. They certainly do not report an explicit bias toward or against a particular category of words. That's because their small, temporary bias is implicit.

Before You Read Any Further

Following research on lexical priming, psychology professor Anthony Greenwald and his colleagues developed the Implicit Attitudes Test (IAT). I recommend all readers pause reading at this point and visit to take an online version of this test.

If you read the rest of this article first, before taking the IAT, your results will be influenced by your understanding of the test's methodology.The online version of the IAT is easy, fast (about 15 minutes from start to finish), and will teach you something new about your attitudes. I strongly recommend you check it out before you read the next section.

Implicit Attitudes

The IAT measures a person's reaction time, in milliseconds, to assess the nature of a series of words. For example, one version of the IAT measures reaction time to assess "good" words vs. "bad" words. Sample good words might be: sunny, party, happy, friend, kisses. Sample bad words (of approximately equal length, frequency, and vocabulary level) might be: stormy, punish, angry, enemy, slap. The question is whether some sort of priming can speed up or slow down the time it takes to accurately categorize words that appear on the computer screen into "good" or "bad."

To test implicit racial bias, researchers first asked participants to decide, as quickly as possible, whether a close-up snapshot showed a black or white person. Immediately following the presentation of these faces, participants were asked to decide, as quickly as possible, whether certain words were good or bad. Results across hundreds of studies suggested that most white people and some non-white people had faster reaction times for bad words when they were preceded by a black person's photo, compared to when those same words were preceded by a white person's photo. Conversely, when good words were preceded by a white person's photo, reaction times were faster than when those good words were preceded by a black person's photo.

The differences in reaction times are on the order of milliseconds, so almost all participants report a subjective feeling of no difference in categorization speed across experimental conditions. Yet the conclusion seems clear: Most white people and some non-white people appear to have an implicit racial bias, associating black male faces with negativity more strongly than white male faces. In addition to race, the IAT has also been used to suggest unconscious biases in how gender, disability, weight, skin tone, last name, and age influence people's judgements about goodness, science-mindedness, careers, violence, and attractiveness.

Some have argued that implicit bias, as measured by reaction time in the IAT, does not reliably predict racial or ethnic discrimination in the real world. (In social science speak, the argument is that the IAT lacks "ecological validity," meaning it tells us little about actual human behavior.) Oswald, Mitchell, Blanton, Jaccard, and Tetlock (2013) conducted a meta-analysis of 46 studies involving about 5,600 participants who were assessed with the IAT. They found little evidence of implicit bias causing racial or ethnic discrimination. Once researchers accounted for explicit bias, such as a person's overt racism, implicit bias added little or no predictive power. Clearly, more research is needed to clarify how performance on the IAT shapes real-world decisions about hiring, promotion, relationships, grading, performance reviews, jury verdicts, arrests, elections, and other important decisions that require assessment of an individual and his or her characteristics and group memberships. Whatever their influence, the hope is that any unconscious, automatic, negative associations we unknowingly harbor can be overcome by our conscious minds.

Immune or Aware?

Imagine that you are interviewing for the position of waterfront director at your day camp or overnight camp. You pride yourself on giving all qualified candidates a legitimate crack at the job, so you conduct in-person interviews with all finalists. You've combed through a dozen resumes and culled the field to two potential hires.

  • Candidate One, a white male named Tucker, is a member of Tau Kappa Epsilon at the University of Maryland, where he is majoring in business. He plays varsity lacrosse for the university but is currently sidelined with an injury sustained at a party. His father used to work at a camp in south Texas, where the family is originally from.
    • What are your immediate assumptions about this candidate?
  • Candidate Two, a Latina female named Rosanna, has been lifeguarding at the municipal pool near her family's apartment in downtown Philadelphia since she was 16. She uses the money to help pay for community college, where she is majoring in early childhood education. She saw the waterfront director job on your website.
    • What are your immediate assumptions about this candidate?

Now, test your assumptions. Both candidates interviewed well and have the requisite certifications. When you call the three references for each candidate, you discover that:

  • Tucker's father died in a car accident when he was two. Mom moved the family to Baltimore to be closer to her parents, who could help with childcare while she worked as an attorney. She now has advanced MS and is in a wheelchair. Mom and Tucker live off disability and dad's small life insurance policy. One of his references, his high school lacrosse coach, explained that Tucker earned a full athletic scholarship to U of M even while helping to care for his mother.
  • Rosanna was recently fired from the municipal pool for showing up to work high and got expelled from Vassar College for plagiarism two years ago, even though her father is a trustee. She was prompted to look for a summer job because her parents refused to pay the insurance on her BMW after she received a second DUI. When you ask one of her references to describe her work ethic, there is a long pause on the other end of the line followed by a sigh.

These are fictitious candidates, of course, designed to illustrate the divergence between first, second, and third impressions. However your initial assumptions differed from your subsequent opinions, the point is that certain prejudices evolved or were eclipsed by factual information. Therein lies one hopeful solution to implicit bias. The more aware you are of which thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are grounded in attitudes and assumptions vs. facts and experiences, the less you'll believe that you are the one person on the planet immune from implicit bias.

Practical Considerations and Diminishing Implicit Bias at Camp

Camping is a human industry if ever there was one. Owners and directors pride themselves on their interpersonal, management, and leadership skills. Yet their humanity is also a liability. Like most people, camp professionals quietly set aside their explicit biases and have little knowledge of how implicit biases affect their behavior. And while completely thwarting implicit bias may be impossible, there are effective ways to diminish its influence. Following are five techniques that have become the accepted standard in industries outside of youth development and which may also be applied to the important work of camp owners and directors:

  1. Blind Auditions. This technique was inspired by auditions for prestigious orchestras. Rather than having a player enter an open room, introduce him or herself by name, and play in front of a panel of judges, the player enters from the rear of a room divided by an acoustically transparent (but visually opaque) curtain. The player, who does not speak and is identified only by a number on the judges' score sheet, remains behind the curtain. The player performs his or her audition piece, plus whatever scales and excerpts the judges request, and departs without speaking. The judges then independently rate the performance, link it to the audition number, and prepare to hear the next player. The goal is for the judges to be uninfluenced by the person's gender, race, clothing, name, or current status as a member (or not) of the orchestra. Because the player remains behind the curtain, there is also no chance that the judges would be influenced even by the look of the player's instrument. They may claim not to care whether a violinist candidate is playing what appears to be a $3 million Stradivarius vs. a $3,000 Copley, or that his last name is Guarneri vs. McDougal, or that she clearly weighs more than 300 pounds vs. less than 125, or is in a wheelchair vs. walking in Vans, but implicit bias is always lurking.

    For camp, job candidates could submit applications without indicating their age, gender, or home address. (They already do not state their ethnicity, religion, or sexual orientation.) Then, camp directors could conduct blind interviews with chosen finalists, where the interviewee sits behind a partition, having not yet been seen by the interviewer. Candidates who emerge as serious contenders for a position could then have a second, face-to-face interview with the director. Up to that final stage, which yields valuable information on a candidate's relatedness, the selection would have been relatively free of implicit bias.
  2. Rubrics. The technique of creating specific and detailed scoring criteria has been around for centuries, but has been recently popularized in sports, courtrooms, and classrooms. Indeed, federal standards-based curricula at public schools have necessitated rubrics, both so teachers can check off the concepts they are required to teach and so grading is consistent across different teachers in the same grade and among teachers nationwide. Although rubrics may obviate creativity, they do ensure minimally reliable (if uninspired) instruction and assessment. A sample oral presentation rubric (Buck Institute for Education, 2013) and a sample resume rubric (NYU Wasserman Institute, 2014) are shown.

    The advantage of a rubric is that it takes some element of subjectivity (and therefore of implicit bias) out of an assessment. The simplest example may be in baseball. The "at bat" rubric, if you will, dictates that three strikes equals an out. There are various ways a batter can acquire a strike (e.g., swinging and missing, hitting one or two foul balls), but three strikes is always a strike-out. Most strike-outs count as outs, unless the catcher fails to catch the final pitch and the batter succeeds in stealing first base. The point is: The rules are the rules, no matter how esoteric. Baseball would be full of injustice and conflict if, for example, a biased pitcher were able to decide on his or her own when the batter should be out. Imagine if David Price (of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays), were throwing against Nelson Cruz (of the New York Mets), and simply declared from the mound, "OK, buddy, you're done. You're out. I don't want to pitch to you anymore. Back to the dugout, pal."

    Camp directors could create detailed rubrics for staff performance in program activities, mealtimes, free time, supervision of unstructured time, and so forth. Not only would this help guide counselors and cabin leaders in the specifics of their jobs, but it would also give directors and senior staff detailed criteria for deciding on promotions. The biases inherent in performance reviews and end-of-season meetings (when emotions run hot and tempers are short) would be dramatically reduced. Reliable scoring criteria might also prevent supervisees from flattering their supervisors. Best of all, perceptions of favoritism, nepotism, and other "isms" would be lessened, boosting morale and loyalty.
  3. Enhanced Training. Most schools and companies now require some kind of "diversity in-service" or "multicultural education." At their best, these trainings increase participants' awareness of their explicit biases and may mention the concept of implicit bias. At their worst — and they are often close to this educational nadir — these workshops are perfunctory and useless. Sitcoms such as The Office have created entire episodes mocking the ineffectiveness and sometimes harmful effects of badly designed, albeit well-intentioned, sensitivity training.

    We are doomed to mistreat others in big and small ways until we muster the courage to admit we don't know, to ask about another person's experiences and perspectives, to own and explore our biases, and to base our inclusive approach on the fundamental belief in human dignity. So, yes, I support school and workplace training on understanding and appreciating other people's differences, but they should be set up to help people openly assess and discuss their explicit and implicit biases. Easier said than done.

    ll camp directors provide training for their staff. But how many directors know about ACA Accreditation Standards HR.11 and HR.18 (ACA, 2017)? Of those familiar with these staff training standards on diversity and sensitive issues, how many directors have trained their staff accordingly? For example, the complete set of standards requires that archery programs use range commands. Failure to comply with this mandatory standard means that a camp would fail its accreditation. However, training staff to "accept, respect, and be responsive to the multicultural diversity of our society" (HR.11) and "to recognize and respond appropriately to socially sensitive conversations and behaviors" (HR.18) are both optional. Fair enough, because archery could be lethal without range commands — but consider the silent but real damage that undertrained and insensitive staff members' implicit biases inflict on youngsters every summer. Consider enhancing your staff training syllabus with workshops on racism, empathy, communication, and culture. Far from being "soft skills," these are essential skills for healthy communities.
  4. Sharing Experiences. Understanding dissolves prejudice, plain and simple. But admitting that ignorance, and allowing for the possibility that our gaps in knowledge cause injustice, takes tremendous courage. How can something we don't know or understand cause discrimination? Because it's human nature to fill in knowledge gaps with assumptions. We've been doing that for tens of thousands of years, sometimes in harmless, creative ways, such as myths and visual arts, and sometimes in destructive ways, such as witch trials and religious crusades.

    In the place of experience with people different from ourselves, we readily insert stereotypes, downward social comparisons, and our own distorted ideas about an unfamiliar person or group. So how does a person get worldly experience, especially on a limited budget? By reading great books, watching excellent documentaries, and engaging new people in open-minded discussions, all of which — in most developed countries — is free at the local library, available online, or accessible in cafés.

    At camp, the entire staff can benefit from open sharing of their off-season experiences in classrooms, companies, and countries around the world. Discussing how experiences have eroded stereotypes and enhanced understanding and inclusiveness are powerful additions to your on-site training syllabus. I've heard moving testimonials about how a roommate's race, sexual orientation, gender identity, religion, politics, or disability became an eye-opening, prejudice-dissolving experience. Most powerful of all is when staff feel safe enough to disclose personal information about which others might have implicit biases, such as being in a sexual, political, or religious minority. Kudos to any director who protects the time and space during staff training week to permit this deep form of socialization.
  5. Technology. Some readers are old enough to remember tennis champion John McEnroe's infamous rails against umpires during the final matches of grand slam tournaments. (Check them out on YouTube if this legendary reference rings no bells.) No doubt the world's tennis umpires and line judges developed a bias against McEnroe's bratty, unsportsmanlike diatribes. Who knows which close calls were decided in favor of McEnroe's opponents simply because he was disliked?

    Thank goodness for tennis fans and players worldwide, Brit Bill Carlton invented the Cyclops, which uses infrared beams of light, crisscrossing over the court surface, to scientifically measure whether a ball bounces inside, on, or outside the service line. First introduced in 1980 at Wimbledon, it was replaced in 2006 with the even more accurate Hawk-Eye system. The ultimate electronic line judge, Hawk- Eye measures not only bounces close to the service line, but near all court lines. There are still human umpires and line judges, but Hawk-Eye eliminates all bias any human has toward any player by instantly delivering data on any questionable human calls. Similar unbiased measurement technology has been introduced in other sports that use lines for determining states of play. (Interestingly, some sports organizations, such as the National Football League, limit the number of appeals a team can make to verify the accuracy of a human referee's call. There are time considerations, but the NFL may also feel that human error, including bias, is an inherent part of the sport.)

    A powerful exercise directors can include in staff training is Project Implicit (see sidebar and visit https://implicit It is a quick, reliable, and valid way to demonstrate the phenomenon of implicit bias and a convincing way to raise consciousness about unconscious forces that may be at work in our judgements and interactions. Project Implicit may not diagnose prejudice, but it is a sobering and educational form of technological assessment.

    Camp directors can also leverage technology to assess staff understanding of key training points. Most directors simply assume that staff absorb the content they read aloud from the staff manual. Naturally, they have an implicit bias to believe that their hand-selected staff are attentive and bright, so will remember the staff manual lectures. In reality, lecturing is the least effective form of teaching (Hackathorn, Solomon, Blankmeyer, Tennial, & Garczynski, 2011), and even the brightest staff are tired from a long school year. Precious few of the policies and procedures proffered in director homilies in dining halls and lodges sink in. To increase comprehension and retention, directors should combine pre-season e-learning with active on-site teaching techniques, such as role plays. Not only is selfpaced e-learning an effective teaching modality, but it can also integrate assessments (e.g., tests and quizzes) that give directors the power to replace assumptions about comprehension with actual data on staff learning (Sorgenfrei & Smolnik, 2016).
  6. Structural Bias Correction. Finally, consider the insidious ways in which your camp may advantage certain groups and disadvantage others. Through no fault of your own, there may be equipment, architecture, policies, and traditions that unintentionally favor certain staff or campers. The classic university example of structural bias is the "fold-up desk" feature built into most lecture halls. They work well for right-handed people, but are uncomfortable and awkward for the 10 percent of students who are left-handed.

    At camps, structural bias might look like menus without vegetarian options, program offerings that include only sports and no arts (or only throw-away, kit-based crafts), urinals at all the same height, daily schedules that ignore the phase shift in adolescents' sleep cycles, or ice-breakers where every child is asked to say what their mom and dad do.

    You can detect some structural biases by asking staff and young participants about their camp experiences. Satisfaction surveys and focus groups can bring uncomfortable or awkward elements to light. Other structural biases are too embarrassing to share, so gather your senior staff together this spring and imagine a typical day together. If you put yourself in the shoes of an atypical staff member or camper, what do you notice about his or her experience of your facility? Perhaps you'll discover some biased structures ripe for revision.

Let the Pig Out of the Pen

No one wants to believe that his or her decisions are flawed, let alone influenced by factors outside of conscious awareness. Coming humbly to terms with both of these truths and working to minimize their effects can pay huge dividends, both personally and professionally. If we desire, as caring human beings, to hold the camp industry to the most stringent, low-bias standards, then we must implement an empirically validated combination of techniques that offset the biases inherent in being human in the first place.

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Christopher Thurber, PhD, is a boardcertified clinical psychologist who enjoys creating and delivering original content to professional educators and youth leaders worldwide. He co-founded, co-wrote The Summer Camp Handbook, and crafted the ACA's homesickness prevention DVD for new camper families. Contact him through his website,