Uncovering hidden biases

man_at_laptop.jpgScience News has got an excellent article on one of psychology’s most recent developments – the Implicit Association Test – a computerised task that claims to measure hidden or unadmitted biases.

The test involves reacting to (usually) words as they appear on-screen by classifying them into categories. The categories are altered to draw out differences in reaction time, which supposedly relate to the difficulty of associating certain concepts with each other.

The idea is that the measure of reaction time makes it particularly difficult to fake, and the association should be detectable even if it is usually over-ridden by the conscious mind.

The IAT has been used for everything from detecting hidden racial prejudices to examining violent associations in psychopaths.

It is still controversial, however, because it is not clear exactly what is being measured, other than some general concept of an ‘association’.

Whether this is predictive of explicit beliefs or attitudes, or future action and risk (such as violence – particularly importantly in forensic psychology) is still an open question.

If you want to try the test yourself, there’s an online version at Project Implicit.

Link to ‘The Bias Finders’ from Science News.
Link to Project Implicit.

2 Comments

  1. Posted April 25, 2006 at 10:18 pm | Permalink

    The way that I’ve come to think about the “implicit associations” mentioned here are as activated areas in that preconscious (in Freud’s terms) limbo. It sits somewhat obscured from our attention somewhere between the conscious and subconscious and it functions like a waiting room, ready to let you remember stories, facts, and I think even emotions, judgements, and biases that have recently been run through your consciousness (from dreams, recent events, etc). Occupants of this chamber do seem to slowly settle into real biases over time, but in particular with this implicit bias test, they’ve found that by priming participants with concepts before the test that either inforce or contradict their internal biases you can sway your results pretty dramatically. So, in a sense, these tests measure the current ecosystem of your preconscious… and I was disturbed to find out how I scored on them… but then after this came to my attention I spent 10 minutes reading up on information that contradicted my biases and retook the test with much better results. I bet that with a bit of training, tools like this would help us recognize and remove undesired biases from our subconscious… it would even be an interesting, if slightly controversial, tool to bring into schools.

  2. Anders Boring
    Posted April 26, 2006 at 10:08 am | Permalink

    I have some problems with their methodology.
    While doing the test I found that when answering against my biases, I didn’t care whether I had the right or wrong answer, since a wrong answer felt like a moral victory, while a right answer was an in game victory.
    When answering with my biases, I found that it became very important for me to give the right answer, so I found myself hesitating far more thus giving a slower response, which is in contradiction of the assumption.


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