Are You Really More Prejudiced Than You Think?

Everyone trusts the Implicit Association Test, but scientists now say it's just not a very good test.

By Tom Gilson Published on January 17, 2017

How prejudiced are you? Wait — don’t answer, you’ll get it wrong. You’re more prejudiced than you think. You have implicit, automatic associations between gender and certain career tracks. You prefer lighter skin tones. You don’t know how much your biases influence you every day, but you can take a test that will tell you the dark truth about yourself.

It’s called the Implicit Association Test, or IAT. Harvard University has been running “Project Implicit” since 1998, testing people’s hidden attitudes toward gender, race and ethnicity. Millions have taken the test. It comes in several versions, it only takes about ten minutes, and it’s worth giving it a try to see what makes it such a big deal.

The Enormous Influence of the IAT

A big deal it certainly is. Scary, too. President Obama’s Office of Science and Technology Policy has prepared a white paper telling us,

Research demonstrates that most people hold unconscious, implicit assumptions that influence their judgments and perceptions of others. Implicit bias manifests in expectations or assumptions about physical or social characteristics dictated by stereotypes that are based on a person’s race, gender, age, or ethnicity.

Sounds pretty scientific — who could argue with language like that? And the effects are grim:

People who intend to be fair, and believe they are egalitarian, apply biases unintentionally. Some behaviors that result from implicit bias manifest in actions, and others are embodied in the absence of action; either can reduce the quality of the workforce and create an unfair and destructive environment.

The IAT’s influence has been enormous:

  • It’s been used to explain why people have doubted Barack Obama was truly American.
  • It’s also been used to explain why minorities are treated differently in the courtroom: “There is no reason to presume attorney exceptionalism in terms of implicit biases.… If this is right, there is plenty of reason to be concerned about how these biases might play out in practice.” The same paper raised a strong warning about implicit biases among judges.

What is this “clear evidence of implicit bias,” anyway? Turns out there’s probably nothing there. There’s very little evidence that the biases supposedly measured in the IAT have anything to do with behavior.

  • It’s been used to explain “Why Cops Shoot Young Black Men”; for as we are told, “An impressive body of psychological research suggests that the men who killed Brown and Martin need not have been conscious, overt racists to do what they did.” Time magazine adds, “That’s little comfort to the grieving families of the growing list of victims — and no good at all to the young men who have been lost. But it at least might help us understand how we came to such tragedy.”

We’re all rotten scoundrels, the IAT tells us. Well, maybe not all of us. Chris Mooney, writing in the Washington Post points fingers at one group in particular: “whites are biased and they don’t even know it.”

The IAT Should be stunning, But Isn’t

But what is this “clear evidence of implicit bias,” anyway? Turns out there’s probably nothing there, according to a January 5 article in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Nothing. It’s lousy science.

Researchers from three universities reviewed almost 500 studies across 20 years and found there was very little evidence that the biases supposedly measured in the IAT have anything to do with behavior. The findings, says one co-author of their 2016 review article, “should be stunning.”

I chose the words “supposedly measured” advisedly. As psychologist Hart Blanton explained in an interview with the Chronicle,

It’s possible to be labeled “moderately biased” on your first test and “slightly biased” on the next. …”The IAT isn’t even predicting the IAT two weeks later,” Blanton says. “How can a test predict behavior if it can’t even predict itself?”

In grad school they taught me no measurement could be more useful (“valid”) than it is reliable; and reliability has to do with how consistently it measures. A yardstick is both valid and reliable for measuring distances up to three feet — unless it’s made by marking inches off on a long rubber band.

That would be worthless, not because it lacks the right kind of measurement, and not even because you couldn’t get lucky with it and land on the right answer sometimes. It’s because you’d get a different answer every time, with no way of knowing which one was right, if any. That’s what Blanton says is going on with the IAT.

If May Look Like Science, But It Still Isn’t Necessarily Science

Naturally, the Project Implicit team thinks they’re producing real science. They could be right — there’s still room for debate — but this latest review casts considerable doubt on it (not for the first time, by the way). Nevertheless the White House tells us with unabashed assurance, “Research demonstrates that most people hold unconscious, implicit assumptions that influence their judgments and perceptions of others.”

I could cite other research — there’s plenty — demonstrating that people are often too quick to trust whatever looks like science to them. The IAT has all the right bells and whistles, and an impressive list of Ph.D.s on its supporting team. So if it says you’re a bigot, you’re a bigot, right?

Wrong. From the 2016 review paper: “We found little evidence that changes in implicit bias mediate [have anything detectable to do with] changes in explicit bias or behavior.” And what difference does it make if some test — completely divorced from real human relationships — says you’re unconsciously biased? What counts is how you actually treat other people. Apparently the IAT doesn’t have much to tell us a thing about that.

But still it shows why cops shoot blacks, doesn’t it? No, wrong again:

Despite clear evidence of implicit bias against Black suspects, officers were slower to shoot armed Black suspects than armed White suspects, and they were less likely to shoot unarmed Black suspects than unarmed White suspects.

Explicit Biases In Operation

Here’s the real lesson. Forget implicit biases. Think explicit ones instead. We don’t need teams of Ph.D.s and arcane tests to expose them. They’re right out in the open. One of them is liberals’ belief that discrimination is the root of all evil; and if you’re not displaying discrimination on the surface, it must be there anyway, especially if you’re white — And we’re gonna dig it out of you, you bigot, you!

I can’t prove it, but I can’t help wondering whether that sentiment explains the IAT’s huge popularity and interest. Never mind its poor record for reliability: it supports the liberals’ narrative of inequality and discrimination.

By Their Fruits

Prying into the unconscious may be an interesting pastime, except it’s way too easy to fool ourselves into thinking we know what’s there when we don’t. God knows what’s going on deep inside everyone’s hearts. For the rest of us, the better rule is, “You will know them by their fruits.”

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