Confusion
Equality, Diversity and Inclusion, Qualitative Methods, Social and behavioural

What do the public make of the “implicit association test” and being told they are subconsciously racist?

‘I’m happy to own my implicit biases’: Public encounters with the implicit association test.

15 March 2018

By Christian Jarrett

Many millions of people around the world have taken the “implicit association test (IAT)” hosted by Harvard University. By measuring the speed of your keyboard responses to different word categories (using keys previously paired with a particular social group), it purports to show how much subconscious or “implicit” prejudice you have towards various groups, such as different ethnicities. You might think that you are a morally good, fair-minded person free from racism, but the chances are your IAT results will reveal that you apparently have racial prejudices that are outside of your awareness.

What is it like to receive this news, and what do the public think of the IAT more generally? To find out, a team of researchers, led by Jeffery Yen at the University of Guelph, Ontario, analysed 793 reader comments to seven New York Times articles (op-eds and science stories) about the IAT published between 2008 and 2010. The findings appear in the British Journal of Social Psychology.

Crudely speaking, the readers could be divided into sceptics and believers. Among the former were those who felt the idea of implicit bias was an academic abstraction in a world of “real racism”. “To me the question of whether [unconscious] racism exists is almost irrelevant when 1 in 15 black adults and 1 in 9 black men between 20 and 34 is in jail,” wrote Nick. “It’s a shame so much time is spent pulling apart such … tiny bits of data … There are many, many examples of actual bias … ,” wrote Jonathan.

Others expressed scepticism about their personal test results, and they often pushed back, arguing that the scientists behind the IAT have a political agenda. “We laugh at the religious for blindly following dogma and dismissing ‘science’. There is as much dogma in this test methodology and the conclusions its backers draw from it,” wrote Luke. An alternative, skeptical reaction was sardonic humour: “I am a white male in his mid-30s, yet I’m good. Even subconsciously! Yes!” wrote vkm.

The reaction among believers in the validity and power of the IAT was very different from the sceptics, leading many to embark on what the researchers called “morally inflected soul searching”. For example, an Asian American voiced concern about her (according to the IAT) anti-white prejudice: “Somewhat more troubling to me is not my results, but that I almost feel proud of them, when my sense of right and wrong tells me I shouldn’t be … much as I wouldn’t be of an anti-black one,” wrote Iris.

Others “confessed” to their implicit prejudice while make a virtue of their willingness to own up to their “guilt”: “I’m happy to own my implicit biases and glad to be made conscious of them,” wrote Jennifer. “I am open-minded enough to be introspective and search my soul for bias of which I might have been unaware previously …,” wrote Bob.

As well as advertising their own wokeness, many of the fans of the IAT also criticised the test’s detractors. “Interesting that a number of these posts are angry,” wrote Laura. “Is this the response of defensive people who don’t want to get close enough to the truth of something to acknowledge it may have merit?” Or take John’s comment: “We should each go home and look in the mirror and recognize the ultimate Bad Guy – who ultimately must become the Good Guy to be the solution.”

Yet another kind of reaction among believers in the IAT was to see implicit prejudice as a unavoidable aspect of being human, thereby absolving the test-taker of responsibility. “I do not believe we can ever get rid of racism and sexism from within ourselves. No amount of education on the importance of tolerance and equality can trump our biological instincts,” wrote David.

The context of this research is that the IAT has become perhaps the most famous and widely taken modern psychological test, even though serious concerns have been raised about its reliability (take the test today and again tomorrow and you will probably find your results have changed) and validity (an individual’s score on the IAT does not tell you much, if anything, about how he or she is likely to behave in the real world). Despite these problems, the test and the concept of implicit prejudice now form the basis of compulsory diversity programmes for many employees.

Arguably there is an important ethical discussion to be had about the fact of millions of people receiving test feedback of questionable meaning and how this might affect them (the current version of the IAT test site features a disclaimer that attempts to off-set these concerns) . However anyone hoping for a hard-hitting ethical critique of the IAT will not find it in this paper. Yen and his colleagues write that they have deliberately side-stepped these issues. “Rather, our objective has been to draw out the social implications of the science in relation to the changing context of prejudice discourse.”

They added: “Our analysis provided a first demonstration of how this research and technology have begun to function in lay understandings of prejudice and public discourse”. In this sense, their findings make a novel and useful contribution, even though it is not clear how much New York Times readers are representative of public reaction more generally. Inevitably for research of this kind there will also have been a large dose of subjectivity in how the researchers parsed the hundreds of online comments.

Yen’s team end on an optimistic note: “Both the idea of implicit bias and the practice of measuring it can … impact on the way people think of themselves, others, and their prejudices. They provide tools for talking about prejudice, for moral-psychological work on the self, for explaining social ills, and for mobilizing others to act in the interests of change.”

Further reading

‘I’m happy to own my implicit biases’: Public encounters with the implicit association test

About the author

Christian Jarrett (@Psych_Writer) is Editor of BPS Research Digest