Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Implicit Association Test

Researchers have come up with a test that is supposed to reveal hidden or unconscious biases. Alex Tabarrok describes it:
The Implicit Association Test is revolutionizing the study of prejudice and bias. The basic idea is simple, the test taker is asked to categorize a series of faces, hitting a right hand key for a white face and a left hand key for a black face. Then the taker must similarly categorize a series of words as good or bad, words like wonderful, nasty, peace, hate etc.

Now here is where it gets interesting. The next list contains both faces and words and the test taker is asked to hit a right hand key if the word is either good or the face is white or to hit a left hand key if the word is either bad or the face black. Finally, the same task is performed but now the test taker must categorize together good words and black faces and bad words and white faces. The test taker is asked to do the test as fast as possible.

Bias is revealed, so the argument goes, if response time is faster when good words must be paired with white faces and bad words paired with black faces than the reverse. Call it the Blink, Blink, Bias test.

Now before you object, it has been shown that the biases revealed by the test do correlate well with policy preferences and a wide variety of conscious and unconscious actions. Also the order of the two important tests, whether you hit the right or left hand keys etc. can all be varied with no change in results.
I'm just not sure about the last sentence there. When I take the test, as I've done on two separate occasions, the first half is easy, because none of the classifications have changed. Right finger = black; right finger = negative words; left finger = white; and left finger = positive words. Your brain settles into the pattern of knowing which finger goes with which concept.

But for the second half of the test, things are reversed. I found this very confusing, and indeed, while I had made no mistakes whatsoever on the first half of the test, during the second half I made several mistakes that actually classified a black face as white or vice versa. For most of the items flashed on the screen, I had to take an split-second to think, "Hold on, is that the right finger or the left finger?"

It seems inevitable to me that when the test switches around which finger goes with what concept, people are going to be slower and make more mistakes, if only because they now have to learn a new pattern.

That's why I wonder what would happen if the test itself was reversed. What would happen if the first half had people classifying black faces and positive concepts by using the same finger, and then during the second half switched things around so that white faces were paired with positive concepts? If the order makes no difference, why is the test always in the same order (i.e., white is paired with positive first)?


Anonymous Anonymous said...


I too have taken these tests (I did so after a very good article about them in the Washington Post Magazine a few weeks ago), and my understanding is that sometimes they start you with the white-positive associations, and other times they start you with the black-positive associations. In either case, the test calibrates your score in light of the fact that the second set of associations will naturally go slower than the first. Thus, I think these tests are scored in order to take into account your concerns.


1:50 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Interestingly I just read an article that used the IAT. Who's in Charge? Effects of Situational Roles on Automatic Gender Bias. Sex Roles (2001)

The study used the IAT and found that guys responded faster when male names were associated with competence-related words compared to when male names and incompetence-related words were associated. Women did the opposite. They reponded fastest when women and competence words were associated.

The journal is laughably biased in that it summarized this finding by saying men were endorsing the stereotype that men are more competent than women but women were rejecting the stereotype.

How about they were both biased towards their own gender? Jeez. This is the kind of stuff that gives academic research a bad name.

How about a little objectivity?

10:47 AM  
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