Implicit prejudice: the “everyone’s a little bit racist” test

I’m slightly racist and moderately sexist. I’m probably also a little bit ableist and weightist and goodness knows what else, but I didn’t have time to try the tests. How about you?

The Implicit Association Test

These tests are called the Implicit Association Test (IAT), and have been used for a variety of purposes, including assessing unconscious favouritism towards one’s own group and bias against people outside one’s own group. It measures unconscious associations, for example, associating typically Muslim names with bad concepts such as hate and war. In the first test I took, I first had to sort Muslim names from non-Muslim names by pressing two buttons on a keyboard. Then I had to sort “good” concepts such as love and peace from “bad” concepts. After this, it got a little harder: “good” shared a button with Muslim names, and “bad” with non-Muslim names. Then the keys switch around, so “bad” and Muslim names share a button, while “good” and non-Muslim share the other. All the while, the computer measured my reaction times. I was quicker at sorting “bad” and Muslim names when they shared a button, and slower when Muslim names shared a button with “good”.

In the second test, where I discovered I’m also a little bit sexist, I had to sort men’s and women’s names, and words pertaining to either career or family. I was a little faster when women’s names and family words shared a button, indicating that unconsciously I associate women with family.

If you try one of the tests, you’ll likely discover that you display unconscious biases against marginalised groups. Almost everyone does, and it’s very difficult to fake the test and appear unbiased.

Ingroup and outgroup favouritism

The IAT taps into a psychological mechanism which we all display to some extent or another: we display favouritism towards people in our own group. This is why, when a white person takes the IAT, they will be more likely to favour “white” names. Even if a person is assigned to a group where they do not know any of the other members and do not have a strong preference for the factor which unites them all, these biases are apparent [paywalled]. Even in minimal groups, people favour the ingroup.

The exception to this rule is for people in marginalised groups [paywalled]. While some people in marginalised groups will show the usual pattern and show ingroup favouritism, other times the pattern will be reversed. They will show a more positive implicit attitude towards the “outgroup” and a more negative implicit attitude to their own group–for example, a black person might be quicker to associate black names with “bad” concepts. This is thought to be a form of system justification: a cognitive loop-the-loop so that disadvantaged people can believe that the world is fair and just.

Is it really prejudice?

Are these unconscious associations genuinely prejudice? There is some evidence [paywalled] to suggest that it may be due to familiarity rather than a bias towards one’s ingroup: when participants had to sort insects (typically something that they have a negative attitude towards) and non-words in an IAT task, they showed a more negative implicit attitude towards the non-words. Because of this effect of familiarity, the effect could be due to absorption of societal beliefs–it measures cultural knowledge rather than prejudice. Perhaps, therefore, I associate women with home and family more readily than with career because I am more familiar with this idea as I am bombarded on a daily basis with media and other people’s attitudes which express this sentiment.

Although the evidence that IAT scores equal prejudice is equivocal, IAT scores do predict behaviour [paywalled]: generally, this behaviour is non-verbal. For example, a person with a high negative implicit attitude towards black people is more likely to sit further away from a black person and less likely to smile at them. Implicit attitudes can also affect voting behaviour and performance on exams. There are real-world implications to unconscious associations. Whether implicit attitudes are genuine prejudice or a result of familiarity with stereotypes, they can affect behaviour.

Can implicit attitudes be changed?

The good news is, implicit attitudes are malleable. In one study [paywalled], implicit prejudice towards black people was reduced through reduced through education, particularly if participants liked the (black) educator. Likewise, familiarity seems to be a factor: after presenting people with familiar faces of admired black people (such as Michael Jordan), negative implicit attitudes towards black people were lower. Taking the IAT may also influence implicit attitudes itself [paywalled]: it may cause participants to build associations. Therefore, by modifying the IAT, it can function as a tool to change implicit prejudice.

By having an awareness of one’s own implicit prejudices, one can work towards changing them and breaking a habit. My area of research–behaviour change–often uses the IAT to measure implicit attitudes towards a habitual behaviour such as smoking, as this is precisely what a habit is: an unconscious association. With awareness of the habit, the habit can be broken. Just as it is possible to stop smoking, it is possible to stop being prejudiced.

Limitations of the IAT

One of the biggest problems with the IAT is that it can only measure binaries: for example, men and women, black and white, Asian or not Asian. Because of this, it is limited in its scope. It is not possible to study prejudice against several different races at once using the IAT; nor is it possible to explore beyond binary notions of gender.

Despite this weakness, though, it is a fairly robust measure: more than a decade of study has established that it is very reliable and difficult to fake results. Put simply, it is currently the best that we have.

So what if I’m racist?

Acknowledgment of one’s own unconscious prejudices is crucial. It does not make you a bad person. My own results were enlightening and show me where there is work to be done. I am angry that I have absorbed some of the messages I see daily, and it gives me the resolve to fight all the harder. It is possible to choose to change.


6 thoughts on “Implicit prejudice: the “everyone’s a little bit racist” test”

  1. I came across this in Malcolm Gladwell’s “Blink”. As a child of both a black parent & a white parent & with pretty well equal exposure to both groups, he had almost no bias when he took the test, at least where black or white people were concerned. He concluded that the best way to overcome this unconscious bias was to spend significant amounts of time with the social group you have bias against. The main thrust of the book was that we tend to make a lot of snap judgements, often but not always our best ones, in the first quarter second of seeing something or being aware of it, but in the concluding pages he said given this racial / social bias, we need to be aware of it & try our best to counteract it.

    During my childhood there weren’t many black or asian people on my estate, & I reckon I probably have that unconscious bias, but I’m doing what I can to counteract it. This isn’t a case of “I’m not racist – some of my best friends are black” – more a case of “I don’t want to be racist, or sexist , or anything-ist – and I’m taking positive steps to make damned sure I’m not & that my kids grow up without prejudices”. Sometimes I do come out with something stupid & I’m glad to say I’ve placed myself into a peer group that will call me out on it & let me know when I’m wrong, and with whom I feel comfortable enough to speak my mind so that if I am prejudiced at all it will out & I can try to correct it.

  2. I found that I got better at the test as I went along – purely because I was in effect practsising as I responded – so naturally I’d be quicker towards the end, and if that associated “muslim” and “bad” then I’m sure it would show up as statistically valid when perhaps it was just getting used to the interface.

    (I also found that on my 4th test I was a bit mentally knackered and errors were creeping in, which could of course have the opposite effect. But they don’t cancel each other out – each affects individual tests).

    The good news is I like values* much more than money, and have no preference between gay and straight. However, I was shocked to see I don’t like furniture any more than I like money. I *do* like furniture!

    *hmm, values, isn’t that a bit reactionary? Whatever…

  3. I do like this: “Your data suggest little to no automatic preference between European American and African American.”

    But then again, the indicators don’t work particularly well, I think. I actually think that the whole test is flawed because structuralism is dead.

  4. Well I’m confused. I’m white and disabled. According to the tests I have “a slight automatic preference for black people compared to white people.” and “a moderate automatic preference for Abled Persons compared to Disabled Persons.”

  5. Took a few of the tests and regardless of your point about it not making me a ‘bad person…’ damnit I still feel evil, considering that my first protest I went to was COUNTER BNP. Eye-opening though. I made too many errors to be sure though. Hey, it was late and i was tired.

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