Implicit Association Test: The Psychology of Bias

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What is the Implicit Association Test (IAT)? How does the IAT measure bias?

In psychology, the Implicit Association Test (IAT) is an assessment designed to gauge mental representations that are outside conscious control. It is supposed to measure unconscious bias by measuring how fast a person can assign descriptors to certain categories (e.g. race or gender).

Learn about the Implicit Association Test, how it works, and what it’s supposed to measure.

The Implicit Association Test

In psychology, the Implicit Association Test (IAT) is a tool that attempts to measure the unconscious associations that people have with certain categories, for example, gender or race. The creators of the IAT argue that it can uncover your implicit racial bias through the measurement of your reaction time. Are you faster to react when pairing positive words, such as “wonderful,” with white faces or black faces? How about negative words such as “evil”? (You can find the IAT online at www.implicit.harvard.edu if you’re interested in trying it.) 

Regardless of their stated beliefs, more than 80% of IAT-takers have “pro-white associations.” In other words, it takes slightly longer for most people to put words like “glorious” and “wonderful” in the “African American” category than to put words like “hurt” and “evil” in the same category.

This doesn’t just apply to test-takers who aren’t African American—50% of more than 50,000 African Americans tested have pro-white associations.

Unconscious racial and gender attitudes still matter, regardless of the conscious attitudes we articulate.

Controversies Over the IAT

There’s a great deal of controversy surrounding the IAT. According to journalist Jesse Singal, who synthesized a range of views on the IAT for The Cut, there are problems with reliability (including low “test-retest” reliability, in which people taking the same test on two different occasions are likely to get different results) and validity (a score on the IAT isn’t necessarily predictive of someone’s behavior toward people of a certain race). There are also questions about whether the IAT oversimplifies causal links. For example, people may receive higher implicit bias scores for reasons unrelated to bias: for example, if they’re very familiar with stereotypes, if they’re thinking about oppression and discrimination, or even if their cognitive processing is slow. 

Following this research, the test creators walked back their original claims about what exactly the test measures. They now say that the data isn’t predictive of individual behavior and is only predictive in aggregate—for example, if the same person does the test many times and averages the results, or when measuring a particular group’s overall patterns of bias.

Implicit Association Test: The Psychology of Bias

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Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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