Shaking the foundations of the hidden bias test

The New York Times takes a look at the ongoing controversy over one of the newest and most popular tests in psychology that claims to be able to detect hidden ‘implicit’ biases.

The test is the Implicit Association Test or IAT and we’ve discussed in it more detail before but it essentially relies on the fact that if you have a pre-existing association between two concepts, say, the concepts ‘blonde’ and ‘stupid’, making similar associations, by categorising words or pictures for example, will be faster than associating ‘blonde’ and ‘clever’ – because you’re going to be quicker doing whichever classification best matches associations you already have.

The test has famously found that automatic negative associations with minority groups are rife in society, even among people of those groups themselves.

However, a recent study looked at the real world effect of this and found something quite curious:

The doctors who scored higher on the bias test were less likely than the other doctors to give clot-busting drugs to the black patients, according to the researchers, who suggested addressing the problem by encouraging doctors to test themselves for unconscious bias. The results were hailed by other psychologists as some of the strongest evidence that unconscious bias leads to harmful discrimination.

But then two other researchers, Neal Dawson and Hal Arkes, pointed out a curious pattern in the data. Even though most of the doctors registered some antiblack bias, as defined by the researchers, on the whole doctors ended up prescribing the clot-busting drugs to blacks just as often as to whites. The doctors scoring low on bias had a pronounced preference for giving the drugs to blacks, while high-scoring doctors had a relatively small preference for giving the drugs to whites — meaning that the more “biased” doctors actually treated blacks and whites more equally.

This has been one part of an ongoing debate that has suggested that the IAT is not all it’s cracked up to be, while the originators of the test have fired back with the heavyweight review [pdf] of over 100 studies, defending their position and the IAT’s credentials.

The debate is important because the IAT has become one of psychology’s central tools for separating conscious and unconscious associations and has been applied to pretty much everything from racism to diagnosing psychopaths.

Link to NYT article ‘In Bias Test, Shades of Gray’.

3 thoughts on “Shaking the foundations of the hidden bias test”

  1. I don’t think the studies really contradict each other– perhaps those with a high implicit association bias can only subconsciously justify a certain very small bias in practice because they know it’s totally unacceptable these days, most places, to be overtly racist?
    And those with a less biased viewpoint, perhaps one that sees blacks and whites as equals within a somewhat unequal system, are subconsciously tuned to the idea that blacks are actually more deserving of better care. White guilt–all historical guilt, really– could very well be a real, testable thing.
    I think maybe these studies use the Implicit Association Test within other systems to reveal similarly murky impulses (bias is murky, no?), such guilt and social restraint.

  2. Thanks for this post. I’m still getting up to speed on this topic, but it already ranks in my most-interesting top 5. I definately think that implicit belief plays a large role in our actions, but it seems that the means to evaluate this effect are still a bit inelegant – but I should read the studies before makiing such a statement – so here I go to begin!

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