unequal sign held up in front of people

Aaron Sackett, Associate Professor, Marketing, Opus College of Business, University of St. Thomas

Harvard University’s Project Implicit® uses online tests to reveal subconscious biases that we may not be aware of. These Implicit Association Tests (IATs) cover a wide range of possible social preferences. The project seeks to learn more about these biases by providing free, confidential access to short tests.

Before we get into the details, it’s important to provide clear definitions for two terms:

  • Implicit = hidden; not overt
  • Bias = a systematic pattern of thoughts or behavior that cannot be attributed to statistical chance alone

The basic idea behind “implicit bias” is that your brain is faster at processing information that fits its schemas well, as opposed to information that fits those schemas less well.  A good example of this phenomenon is the Stroop task: If you see the word GREEN printed in a blue color, you’re supposed to say the color of the word (blue), rather than word itself (green). To demonstrate, try to do that for these two rows of colors, saying the color, not what the word says:

Line 1: Red Blue Yellow Green Red Yellow Green Blue, Line 2: Red Blue Yellow Green Red Yellow Green Blue

You’re much faster and more correct with Line 1 than with Line 2, right? Because the name of the color fits the name of the word, the information is easier for your brain to process.  When they don’t match, your brain can still do the work, but it is slowed down.  It might take you an extra second or more to get through Line 2 than Line 1.

An IAT uses the same concept, but the whole process is much subtler. Concepts like “Female” and “Good” may not be opposed to one another in your mind, but maybe for you they are, say, 5% less in sync than “Male” and “Good.” Maybe for someone else they are even more out of sync.  Either way, your brain works faster for the “easy” association and just a hair slower for the “less easy” association.  But it’s all fast, so the difference is usually invisible to the test taker.  It has to be measured in milliseconds per decision.  As patterns emerge over many trials, we start to understand which pairs are more consistent with our brain’s learned associations, and which are less so.

Almost everybody shows statistically significant biases in one direction or another for just about any category.  Why?  Because that’s how our brains work. If my brain learns from experience (or from observing other people’s reactions) that snake = danger, I’ll get faster at jumping out of the way the next time I see one (that’s true even if I am not overtly afraid of snakes and actually think they’re really wonderful animals).  This would be an example of an implicit bias that influences my behavior, and it makes sense that our brains would have evolved to do this: If it happens to be a venomous snake, I live another day.  If it’s just your typical, harmless garter snake, well, maybe my brain’s implicit bias against snakes made me waste a couple of calories by being unnecessarily jumpy, but that’s about it.  

Lest my snake example makes you think that implicit biases only involves things that are actually dangerous, let me remind you of the “Little Albert” experiment at Johns Hopkins a century ago. In that experiment, a normal nine-month-old infant quickly developed a fear of white bunnies and Santa Claus after making an association between cute, white fuzzy things and a startling noise. You can imagine that a mother who unintentionally holds her baby a little tighter when someone “different” sits down next to her might have the same effect on her infant, just more subtly so.

So, why is it a good idea to try IATs?  One word: HUMILITY.  Most of us don’t believe that we are racist, or homophobic, or Islamophobic, and most of us believe that such prejudices are wrong.  Most of us endorse equality and would never engage in what we felt was racist or otherwise prejudiced behavior.  We tell ourselves that we aren’t the problem; it’s other people. Other people are vulnerable to prejudice and bias; I am not.  But the reality is that each of us has some implicit biases that we don’t realize and would rather not have. Admitting this to ourselves requires both awareness and humility. Taking the IAT and seeing the evidence of our implicit biases is meant to provide the awareness.  Accepting that evidence rather than dismissing it requires humility.  By using tools to become aware, we can all develop the humility to accept the unpleasant evidence that we, too, are vulnerable to bias.

Once we are humbled into realizing that the problem isn’t just all around us but is actually partly in us, too, we gain the capability to combat it in ourselves.  By becoming aware of our implicit biases, we shed the illusion of invulnerability and can instead guard against prejudice when our biases might come into play.  We might even actively seek out opportunities to retrain our brains by getting out of our micro-cultural bubbles and experiencing others in more meaningful ways.

IATs deal with issues you might expect, including race, religion, and age. But there are also tests on weight, weapons, and career preferences. Find out what you don’t know about yourself at the Implicit Association Test site.

April 15, 2019