Who Do You Think You Are?

By Banerji, Shilpa | Diverse Issues in Higher Education, September 8, 2005 | Go to article overview
Save to active project

Who Do You Think You Are?

Banerji, Shilpa, Diverse Issues in Higher Education

In the Implicit Association Test, Harvard psychologist Dr. Mahzarin R. Banaji measures perception and prejudice.


Images of Jackie Robinson, Zora Neale Hurston and several other people of color float across the computer screen of Dr. Mahzarin R. Banaji. While all the images are of admirable icons, their purpose is more than mere motivation. The Harvard University psychology and social ethics professor is using this Black and Brown mosaic to help dispel her subconscious biases. Banaji has made a career of showing people what they really think, starting with herself.

Born and raised in India, racial and ethnic bias have been present in her life from the beginning, but her scientific study of bias began in earnest almost a decade ago. As a professor of social and cognitive psychology at Yale University, Banaji was conducting research on how social attitudes are affected by unconscious thoughts. Some studies at the time indicated that even amnesiacs, who had suffered severe memory loss, still possessed memories, they were just unable to access them. That scientific revelation led Banaji to wonder if our social attitudes operated in a similar way.

"You don't have to be an amnesiac to show those signs," she says. "Maybe all of us have another side to ourselves that we don't have access to."

To help answer the question, Banaji teamed up with fellow psychology professors Dr. Anthony Greenwald of the University of Washington and Dr. Brian Nosek of the University of Virginia to develop the Implicit Association Test. The IAT was created as a tool to examine thoughts and feelings that exist either outside of conscious awareness or outside of conscious control. In essence, the test uncovers subconscious preferences. For people who consider themselves fair-minded and objective, the results of the IAT can be unsettling and unexpected, as Banaji found out when she took it for the first time. She was shocked to discover how many biases existed within her subconscious.

"For a moment, I had a feeling everything was draining out from me," she says. "But then the scientist in me came back ... to ask more questions."

As a woman of color, the race-bias test she helped develop served as a stark reality check. "Becoming aware changed me in some very deep ways, and I thought I was already pretty aware," she says.


Humans are faced with countless social situations daily. Psychology students learn early on that generalizations and categorizations are effective yet flawed ways of navigating life's social maze. But those shortcuts accurate or not - can easily become ingrained biases. Are Middle-Eastern men at the airport interpreted as a threat? Are young Black or Latino men in a group considered a gang? Are the elderly and teenagers perceived as untrustworthy behind the wheel? The examples are limitless. And for the most part, we don't even recognize them on a conscious level. But the IAT brings those latent prejudices to the forefront, and it does not necessarily paint a pretty picture. Since it went online, says Nosek, more than three million people have taken the test. More than 80 percent of White respondents have shown a pro-White bias. But interestingly, 50 percent of Blacks show an anti-Black bias.

"There's a two-punch story with Blacks. First, they do show their bias themselves, but they don't show it to nearly the same extent as Whites do," Banaji says.

The test may be "in your face" she says, "But the IAT is not just about what we see in other people. It is about what we see in ourselves.

"We know that, as members of groups, we perform enormous acts of kindness. We do things for our family, we root for our school teams, we come to school and work for lots of people besides ourselves," she says. "What is interesting is that that same identity, with the group, also has an ugly side."


The revelatory test quickly acquired both critics and supporters in the psychology community.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
Loading One moment ...
Project items
Cite this article

Cited article

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited article

Who Do You Think You Are?


Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

While we understand printed pages are helpful to our users, this limitation is necessary to help protect our publishers' copyrighted material and prevent its unlawful distribution. We are sorry for any inconvenience.
Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.

Are you sure you want to delete this highlight?