implicit bias

How’s Your (Implicit) Attitude?

I was unaware of the Implicit Association Test (IAT) until a few years ago, when I took a test at YourMorals.Org that purported to measure my implicit racial preferences. I’ll say more about that after discussing IAT, which has been exposed as junk. That’s what John. J. Ray calls it:

Psychologists are well aware that people often do not say what they really think.  It is therefore something of a holy grail among them to find ways that WILL detect what people really think. A very popular example of that is the Implicit Associations test (IAT).  It supposedly measures racist thoughts whether you are aware of them or not.  It sometimes shows people who think they are anti-racist to be in fact secretly racist.

I dismissed it as a heap of junk long ago (here and here) but it has remained very popular and is widely accepted as revealing truth.  I am therefore pleased that a very long and thorough article has just appeared which comes to the same conclusion that I did. [“Psychology’s Favorite Tool for Measuring Racism Isn’t Up to the Job“, Political Correctness Watch, September 6, 2017]

The article in question (which has the same title as Ray’s post) is by Jesse Singal. It appeared at Science of Us on January 11, 2017. Here are some excerpts:

Perhaps no new concept from the world of academic psychology has taken hold of the public imagination more quickly and profoundly in the 21st century than implicit bias — that is, forms of bias which operate beyond the conscious awareness of individuals. That’s in large part due to the blockbuster success of the so-called implicit association test, which purports to offer a quick, easy way to measure how implicitly biased individual people are….

Since the IAT was first introduced almost 20 years ago, its architects, as well as the countless researchers and commentators who have enthusiastically embraced it, have offered it as a way to reveal to test-takers what amounts to a deep, dark secret about who they are: They may not feel racist, but in fact, the test shows that in a variety of intergroup settings, they will act racist….

[The] co-creators are Mahzarin Banaji, currently the chair of Harvard University’s psychology department, and Anthony Greenwald, a highly regarded social psychology researcher at the University of Washington. The duo introduced the test to the world at a 1998 press conference in Seattle — the accompanying press release noted that they had collected data suggesting that 90–95 percent of Americans harbored the “roots of unconscious prejudice.” The public immediately took notice: Since then, the IAT has been mostly treated as a revolutionary, revelatory piece of technology, garnering overwhelmingly positive media coverage….

Maybe the biggest driver of the IAT’s popularity and visibility, though, is the fact that anyone can take the test on the Project Implicit website, which launched shortly after the test was unveiled and which is hosted by Harvard University. The test’s architects reported that, by October 2015, more than 17 million individual test sessions had been completed on the website. As will become clear, learning one’s IAT results is, for many people, a very big deal that changes how they view themselves and their place in the world.

Given all this excitement, it might feel safe to assume that the IAT really does measure people’s propensity to commit real-world acts of implicit bias against marginalized groups, and that it does so in a dependable, clearly understood way….

Unfortunately, none of that is true. A pile of scholarly work, some of it published in top psychology journals and most of it ignored by the media, suggests that the IAT falls far short of the quality-control standards normally expected of psychological instruments. The IAT, this research suggests, is a noisy, unreliable measure that correlates far too weakly with any real-world outcomes to be used to predict individuals’ behavior — even the test’s creators have now admitted as such.

How does IAT work? Singal summarizes:

You sit down at a computer where you are shown a series of images and/or words. First, you’re instructed to hit ‘i’ when you see a “good” term like pleasant, or to hit ‘e’ when you see a “bad” one like tragedy. Then, hit ‘i’ when you see a black face, and hit ‘e’ when you see a white one. Easy enough, but soon things get slightly more complex: Hit ‘i’ when you see a good word or an image of a black person, and ‘e’ when you see a bad word or an image of a white person. Then the categories flip to black/bad and white/good. As you peck away at the keyboard, the computer measures your reaction times, which it plugs into an algorithm. That algorithm, in turn, generates your score.

If you were quicker to associate good words with white faces than good words with black faces, and/or slower to associate bad words with white faces than bad words with black ones, then the test will report that you have a slight, moderate, or strong “preference for white faces over black faces,” or some similar language. You might also find you have an anti-white bias, though that is significantly less common. By the normal scoring conventions of the test, positive scores indicate bias against the out-group, while negative ones indicate bias against the in-group.

The rough idea is that, as humans, we have an easier time connecting concepts that are already tightly linked in our brains, and a tougher time connecting concepts that aren’t. The longer it takes to connect “black” and “good” relative to “white” and “good,” the thinking goes, the more your unconscious biases favor white people over black people.

Singal continues (at great length) to pile up the mountain of evidence against IAT, and to caution against reading anything into the results it yields.

Having become aware of the the debunking of IAT, I went to the website of Project Implicit. When I reached this page, I was surprised to learn that I could not only find out whether I’m a closet racist but also whether I prefer dark or light skin tones, Asians or non-Asians, Trump or a previous president, and several other things or their opposites. I chose to discover my true feelings about Trump vs. a previous president, and was faced with a choice between Trump and Clinton.

What was the result of my several minutes of tapping “e” and “i” on the keyboard of my PC? This:

Your data suggest a moderate automatic preference for Bill Clinton over Donald Trump.

Balderdash! Though Trump is obviously not of better character than Clinton, he’s obviously not of worse character. And insofar as policy goes, the difference between Trump and Clinton is somewhat like the difference between a non-silent Calvin Coolidge and an FDR without the patriotism. (With apologies to the memory of Coolidge, my favorite president.)

Now, what did IAT say about my racism, or lack thereof? I have for years proudly posted these results at the bottom of my “About” page and in the accompanying moral profile:

The study you just completed is an Implicit Association Test (IAT) that compares the strength of automatic mental associations. In this version of the IAT, we investigated positive and negative associations with the categories of “African Americans” and “European Americans”.

The idea behind the IAT is that concepts with very closely related (vs. unrelated) mental representations are more easily and quickly responded to as a single unit. For example, if “European American” and “good” are strongly associated in one’s mind, it should be relatively easy to respond quickly to this pairing by pressing the “E” or “I” key. If “European American” and “good” are NOT strongly associated, it should be more difficult to respond quickly to this pairing. By comparing reaction times on this test, the IAT gives a relative measure of how strongly associated the two categories (European Americans, African Americans) are to mental representations of “good” and “bad”. Each participant receives a single score, and your score appears below.

Your score on the IAT was 0.07.

Positive scores indicate a greater implicit preference for European Americans relative to African Americans, and negative scores indicate an implicit preference for African Americans relative to European Americans.

Your score appears in the graph below in green. The score of the average Liberal visitor to this site is shown in blue and the average Conservative visitor’s score is shown in red.

Moral profile-implicit association test

It should be noted that my slightly positive score probably was influenced by the order in which choices were presented to me. Initially, pleasant concepts were associated with photos of European-Americans. I became used to that association, and so found that it affected my reaction time when I was faced with pairings of pleasant concepts and photos of African-Americans. The bottom line: My slight preference for European-Americans probably is an artifact of test design.

In other words, I believed that my very low score, despite the test set-up, “proved” that I am not a racist. But thanks (or no thanks) to John Ray and Jesse Singal, I must conclude, sadly, that I may be one (or maybe not).

I suspect that I am not a racist. I don’t despise blacks as a group, nor do I believe that they should have fewer rights and privileges than whites. (Neither do I believe that they should have more rights and privileges than whites or persons of Asian or Ashkenazi Jewish descent — but they certainly do when it comes to college admissions and hiring.) It isn’t racist to understand that race isn’t a social construct and that there are general differences between races (see many of the posts listed here). That’s just a matter of facing facts, not ducking them, as leftists are wont to do.

What have I learned from the IAT? I must have very good reflexes. A person who processes information rapidly and then almost instantly translates it into a physical response should be able to “beat” the IAT. And that’s probably what I did in the Trump vs. Clinton test, if not in the racism test. I’m a fast typist and very quick to catch dropped items before they hit the floor. (My IQ, or what’s left of it, isn’t bad either; go here and scroll down to the section headed “Intelligence, Temperament, and Beliefs”.)

Perhaps the IAT for racism could be used to screen candidates for fighter-pilot training. Only “non-racists” would be admitted. Anyone who isn’t quick enough to avoid the “racist” label isn’t quick enough to win a dogfight.