Of the more than 14 million people who have taken an implicit bias test during the last 15 years, most discovered unconscious—and often uncomfortable—biases. One of the most popular tests, the race test, revealed that three out of four people implicitly prefer white skin.
Maybe that’s not news. As the creators of the test admit, white preference is pervasive in American society.
But the startling part of the test, designed by Harvard psychologists in the mid-1990s, is its ability to measure “hidden biases,” or prejudices so deeply ingrained that people are not consciously aware of them. That means test results often reveal “unrecognized truths” even among people who “earnestly espouse egalitarian beliefs.”
“Racial attitudes in terms of what people report, how they describe what they overtly believe, have changed a lot since World War II,” said Tony Greenwald, one of two psychologists to design the Implicit Association Test and co-author of the 2013 book Blindspot.
“Most people will describe themselves as not having hostility toward black Americans or Native Americans,” he said. “Still, racism hasn’t disappeared. It’s merely changed its shape.”
In other words, racist attitudes that once were socially acceptable and voiced explicitly now are implicit—buried so deeply even the most conscientiously unprejudiced person is not aware they exist. Greenwald himself discovered this uncomfortable implicit bias when he became the first person to take the test.
Calling the results “a moment of jarring insight,” Greenwald learned that he had a strong automatic preference to white people over black, despite conscious beliefs to the contrary. The test is the first to measure biases scientifically as opposed to previous studies, which relied on self-reporting, assuming people were the best authorities on their own racial beliefs.
Here’s another jarring conclusion Greenwald discovered after years of looking at millions of other peoples’ test results: 75 percent of all people who took the race test showed implicit bias toward white people over black. That includes test-takers of nearly every race—white, Hispanic, Asian, American Indian and even black.
Yes, that’s right. Among black people who took the race test, 30 percent showed preference for white skin.
“Blacks are interesting,” Greenwald said. “You might expect automatic preference for black, but they are pretty much in the middle. They tested in thirds—one-third showed automatic preference for black while one-third showed automatic preference for white.”
The remaining third showed no perceivable preference between white and black, Greenwald said.
To understand what the tests reveal, it is important to know how they work. The Implicit Association Test, or IAT, taps into years of stored experiences a person can’t consciously put aside.
Test-takers are asked to sort pictures and words into categories. In the race test, a person is asked to sort through photos of African Americans and European Americans, as well as words like “happy,” “joy,” “awful” and “terrible.” The test calculates how quickly the brain associates pleasant words and images compared to the unpleasant ones. Cumulative test results show that the majority of test-takers associate pleasure with white, Greenwald said.
Greenwald, who teaches at the University of Washington, collaborated with Harvard psychologist Mahzarin Banaji to launch a series of tests designed to reveal a variety of hidden biases: skin color, disabilities, gender, sexuality, age and body type, to name a few. Fourteen tests are available, and the sitehas 20,000 unique visitors every week.
Many of the results are predictable, Greenwald said. Test-takers show a preference for young people over old, thin people over heavy, straight over gay, white over black and able over disabled. Results also show strong associations between men and careers, women and families, and black people and weapons.
Another test, the Native IAT, measures a person’s biases toward American Indian faces in either traditional or modern dress and the automatic association of those faces, along with the names of Native places, as either American or foreign in origin. Results show people are more likely to categorize Native names and faces as foreign.
Despite the correlations, the question remains: How likely is the race IAT to predict behavior? In the book Blindspot, Greenwald and Banaji assert that the test result can be a “moderate predictor” of racially discriminatory behavior.
Perhaps the better question, according to Greenwald, is how to look into your own blind spot and confront your biases. Pointing at society’s prejudices, which range from hate crimes to disparities in the workplace, Greenwald encourages test-takers to have an open mind.
“This is a device for any individual to look inside their head and see what may be there that they’re not aware of,” he said. “I don’t think people can easily change biases, but it’s important to know they’re there.”