The Bias Finders: A Test of Unconscious Attitudes Polarizes Psychologists

By Bower, Bruce | Science News, April 22, 2006 | Go to article overview

The Bias Finders: A Test of Unconscious Attitudes Polarizes Psychologists


Bower, Bruce, Science News


It lurks in the mind's dark basement, secretly shaping our opinions, attitudes, and stereotypes. This devious manipulator does its best to twist our behavior to its nefarious end. Its stock in trade: stirring up racial prejudice and a host of other pernicious preconceptions about members of various groups. Upstairs, our conscious mind ignores this pushy cellar dweller and assumes that we're decent folk whose actions usually reflect good intentions.

Welcome to the disturbing world of implicit bias, where people's preferences for racial, ethnic, and other groups lie outside their awareness and often clash with their professed beliefs about those groups. In the past 15 years, most social psychologists have come to agree that implicit biases, also known as unconscious attitudes, play an often-unnoticed role in our lives. Researchers study implicit biases using any of several techniques, such as tracking participants' feelings and behaviors after subliminally showing them pictures of black or old people.

However, one measure--the Implicit Association Test, or IAT--has proved especially popular. Since its introduction in 1998, more than 250 IAT-related studies have been published. More than 3 million IATs have been completed on a Web site (https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/) established by the test's major proponents--Anthony G. Greenwald of the University of Washington in Seattle, Mahzarin R. Banaji of Harvard University, and Brian A. Nosek of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. Other online venues run by organizations concerned about various types of discrimination also offer the IAT to visitors.

The huge IAT database contains troubling findings that have been highly publicized. For example, more than three-quarters of white and Asian test takers in the United States display an unconscious tendency to value white people over black people. Roughly half of black test takers show a pro-white bias as well. Many people who complete the IAT exhibit implicit inclinations for young versus old people and unconsciously favor men over women.

Such results challenge the traditional view in psychology that each person knows his or her social attitudes and stereotypes, Banaji says. People maintain unconscious preferences for certain social groups over others, even if they disavow those preferences when asked about them, in her view. In the post-Civil Rights era, few people admit to harboring ill will toward blacks or to acting in a racially discriminating style, but IAT results reveal a stubborn undercurrent of white favoritism with the potential to stoke bigoted behavior, in Banaji's view.

Virtually from the start, the test sparked a schism in social psychology. The IAT taps into much more than individuals' unconscious attitudes, critics contend. Familiarity with members of those groups, knowledge of cultural attitudes toward particular groups, and test-taking tactics influence IAT scores, they say.

Critics also argue that specific IAT scores are meaningless because they haven't been tied to relevant, real-world behaviors. No one should assume that he or she is unconsciously prejudiced against black people on the basis of an IAT score, these investigators hold.

Psychologist William von Hippel of the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia, has followed the IAT debate closely. "Rarely has a methodological tool garnered such strong adherents and detractors," von Hippel says. "The IAT should be vigorously researched and debated, but we still do not really understand what it reveals."

FEEL THE CONFLICT Go to the IAT Web site and you can probe personal preferences on more than 90 topics, including pets, politics, sports teams, and musical styles. But the IAT measure of attitudes about race draws the most attention. The roughly 5-minute, two-part test "provides a palpable experience of mental conflict that leads to an opportunity for self-examination" says Nosek. …

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