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WP: Many Americans believe they are not prejudiced, a new test can prove them wrong



Harvard’s Mahzarin Banaji is one of three researchers who developed the Implicit Association Test. (Stella Johnson)

The Washington Post Sunday Magazine feature, See no Bias, is a lengthy, revealing piece about findings from Harvard’s Implicit Association Test. It provides powerful evidence that a majority of us have prejudicides to some degree on many issues that have strong political implications, despite what we consciously believe. This is not just about feelings or perceptions on race/ethicity; the test covers age, weight, sexual orientation, and many other factors (a description of the test modules is at the end of the post). (WP):

“The Implicit Association Test measures the thumbprint of the culture on our minds,” says [Harvard’s Mahzarin] Banaji, one of three researchers who developed the test and its most ardent proponent. “If Europeans had been carted to Africa as slaves, blacks would have the same beliefs about whites that whites now have about blacks.”

As the tests have been refined, replicated and reinterpreted over the past decade, they have challenged many popular notions — beginning with the increasingly common assertion that discrimination is a thing of the past.

The research has also upset notions of how prejudice can best be addressed. Through much of the 20th century, activists believed that biases were merely errors of conscious thought that could be corrected through education. This hopeful idea is behind the popularity of diversity training. But Banaji suggests such training relies on the wrong idea of how people form biases.

There is likely a biological reason people so quickly make assumptions — good or bad — about others, Banaji says. The implicit system is likely a part of the “primitive” brain, designed to be reactive rather than reasoned. It specializes in quick generalizations, not subtle distinctions. Such mental shortcuts probably helped our ancestors survive. It was more important when they encountered a snake in the jungle to leap back swiftly than to deduce whether the snake belonged to a poisonous species. The same mental shortcuts in the urban jungles of the 21st century are what cause people to form unwelcome stereotypes about other people, Banaji says. People revert to the shortcuts simply because they require less effort. But powerful as such assumptions are, they are far from permanent, she says. The latest research, in fact, suggests these attitudes are highly malleable.

I was pointed to the article by lowkell‘s Daily Kos diary, You’re Prejudiced. Yeah, you! (but ReThugs are far worse!). The diary summarizes the unsettling findings, which I’m posting here. Do visit the diary, since DKossacks are sharing their always interesting feedback on this complicated topic.

The larger discussion is what do we do with the information gathered from the roughly two million people that have taken this test? What we do know is that the results are disturbing.

First of all, almost ALL of us are prejudiced to one degree or the other…

  • 88 percent of white people had a pro-white or anti-black implicit bias (in other words, only 12% of whites show no anti-black bias — yikes!!!)
  • 83 percent of heterosexuals showed implicit biases for straight people over gays and lesbians (apparently, straight people are still stuck in the dark ages when it comes to gays, despite “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy,” Richard Hatch, etc.)
  • More than two-thirds of non-Arab, non-Muslim volunteers displayed implicit biases against Arab Muslims (this is actually lower than I expected, post-9/11)
  • Large majorities showed biases for Christians over Jews (anti-Semitism is apparently not dead in America)
  • Large majorities showed biases for the rich over the poor (hmmmm…is this support for Thomas Frank’s argument in “What’s the Matter with Kansas?”)
  • Large majorities showed biases for men’s careers over women’s careers (Rush says: “yeah, keep ’em barefoot and pregnant!”)

    As if those results weren’t bad enough, it gets even worse in some ways when you look at minorities’ attitudes about themselves.  Turns out that a lot of them INTERNALIZE the negative biases of the majority culture:

  • 48 percent of blacks showed a pro-white or anti-black bias
  • 36 percent of Arab Muslims showed an anti-Muslim bias
  • 38 percent of gays and lesbians showed a bias for straight people over homosexuals

    Now, here are the juicy political findings:

  • Conservatives, on average, show higher levels of bias against gays, blacks and Arabs than liberals.
  • “Very conservative” people were STRONGLY biased against gays, compared to “very liberal” people showing almost NO anti-gay bias.
  • “Very conservative” people hold between “moderate” and “strong” anti-black bias.  Just plain “conservatives” score about the same, while “slightly conservative” people fall right on the “moderate” line for anti-black bias.
  • In contrast, liberals show only SLIGHT anti-black bias, with “very liberal” people showing essentially NONE.
  • “Very conservative” folks show the most anti-Arab bias, but surprisingly only between “slight” and “moderate.”  Liberals show between “none” and “slight.”

    Interestingly, according to the Post, “Most of the people approached for this article declined to participate. Several prominent politicians, Republican and Democrat, declined to take the tests for this article. The aide to one senator bristled, “You think he is a racist!”

  • The big question is — do you want to take the test? Do you really want to know what how subconsciously feel about the way you relate to the world on this level, even if it disturbs you? I know it makes me incredibly uncomfortable to think that my results may not mirror what I strive every day to be as a member of society committed to tolerance. What do you think? If you’d like to take the test, here is a list of the categories, as they are broken down on the site.

    Age (‘Young – Old’ IAT). This IAT requires the ability to distinguish old from young faces. This test often indicates that Americans have automatic preference for young over old.

    Gender – Science. This IAT often reveals a relative link between liberal arts and females and between science and males.

    Race (‘Black – White’ IAT). This IAT requires the ability to distinguish faces of European and African origin. It indicates that most Americans have an automatic preference for white over black.

    Election (‘2004 Presidential Candidates’ IAT). This IAT requires the ability to recognize photos of presidential candidates that ran in the 2004 U.S. presidential election.

    Presidents (‘Presidential Popularity’ IAT). This IAT requires the ability to recognize photos of George W. Bush and one or more previous presidents. The results revealed by this test provide a new method of appraising public support for the President of the United States.

    Sexuality (‘Gay – Straight’ IAT). This IAT requires the ability to distinguish words and symbols representing gay and straight people. It often reveals an automatic preference for straight relative to gay people.



    Gender – Career
    . This IAT often reveals a relative link between family and females and between career and males.

    Arab-Muslim (‘Arab Muslim – Other People’ IAT). This IAT requires the ability to distinguish names that are likely to belong to Arab-Muslims versus people of other nationalities or religions. It frequently reveals an automatic preference for other people compared to Arab-Muslims.

    Weight (‘Fat – Thin’ IAT). This IAT requires the ability to distinguish faces of people who are obese and people who are thin. It often reveals an automatic preference for thin people relative to fat people.

    Religion (‘Judaism – Other Religions’ IAT). This IAT requires the ability to recognize religious symbols from various world religions, especially Judaism.

    Disablity (‘Disabled – Abled’ IAT). This IAT requires the ability to recognize symbols representing abled and disabled individuals.

    Native American (‘Native – White American’ IAT). This IAT requires the ability to recognize White and Native American faces in either classic or modern dress, and the names of places that are either American or Foreign in origin.

    Asian American (‘Asian – European American’ IAT). This IAT requires the ability to recognize White and Asian-American faces, and images of places that are either American or Foreign in origin.

    Weapons (‘Weapons – Harmless Objects’ IAT). This IAT requires the ability to recognize White and Black faces, and images of weapons or harmless objects.

    Skin-tone (‘Light Skin – Dark Skin’ IAT). This IAT requires the ability to recognize light and dark-skinned faces. It often reveals an automatic preference for light-skin relative to dark-skin.

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