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See No Bias

Many Americans believe they are not prejudiced. Now a new test provides powerful evidence that a majority of us really are.

By Shankar Vedantam
Sunday, January 23, 2005; Page W12

AT 4 O'CLOCK ON A RECENT WEDNESDAY AFTERNOON, a 34-year-old white woman sat down in her Washington office to take a psychological test. Her office decor attested to her passion for civil rights -- as a senior activist at a national gay rights organization, and as a lesbian herself, fighting bias and discrimination is what gets her out of bed every morning. A rainbow flag rested in a mug on her desk.

The woman brought up a test on her computer from a Harvard University Web site. It was really very simple: All it asked her to do was distinguish between a series of black and white faces. When she saw a black face she was to hit a key on the left, when she saw a white face she was to hit a key on the right. Next, she was asked to distinguish between a series of positive and negative words. Words such as "glorious" and "wonderful" required a left key, words such as "nasty" and "awful" required a right key. The test remained simple when two categories were combined: The activist hit the left key if she saw either a white face or a positive word, and hit the right key if she saw either a black face or a negative word.

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

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Then the groupings were reversed. The woman's index fingers hovered over her keyboard. The test now required her to group black faces with positive words, and white faces with negative words. She leaned forward intently. She made no mistakes, but it took her longer to correctly sort the words and images.

Her result appeared on the screen, and the activist became very silent. The test found she had a bias for whites over blacks.

"It surprises me I have any preferences at all," she said. "By the work I do, by my education, my background. I'm progressive, and I think I have no bias. Being a minority myself, I don't feel I should or would have biases."

Although the activist had initially agreed to be identified, she and a male colleague who volunteered to take the tests requested anonymity after seeing their results. The man, who also is gay, did not show a race bias. But a second test found that both activists held biases against homosexuals -- they more quickly associated words such as "humiliate" and "painful" with gays and words such as "beautiful" and "glorious" with heterosexuals.

If anything, both activists reasoned, they ought to have shown a bias in favor of gay people. The man's social life, his professional circle and his work revolve around gay culture. His home, he said, is in Washington's "gayborhood."

"I'm surprised," the woman said. She bit her lip. "And disappointed."

MAHZARIN BANAJI WILL NEVER FORGET HER OWN RESULTS THE FIRST TIME SHE TOOK A BIAS TEST, now widely known as the Implicit Association Test. But whom could she blame? After all, she'd finally found what she was looking for.

Growing up in India, Banaji had studied psychophysics, the psychological representation of physical objects: A 20-watt bulb may be twice as bright as a 10-watt bulb, for example, but if the two bulbs are next to each another, a person may guess the difference is only 5 watts. Banaji enjoyed the precision of the field, but she realized that she found people and their behavior toward one another much more interesting. The problem was that there was no accurate way to gauge people's attitudes. You had to trust what they told you, and when it came to things such as prejudice -- say, against blacks or poor people -- people usually gave politically correct answers. It wasn't just that people lied to psychologists -- when it came to certain sensitive topics, they often lied to themselves. Banaji began to wonder: Was it possible to create something that could divine what people really felt -- even if they weren't aware of it themselves?

The results of one of Banaji's experiments as a young scholar at Yale University encouraged her. She and her colleagues replicated a well-known experiment devised by psychologist Larry Jacoby. Volunteers were first shown a list of unfamiliar names such as Sebastian Weisdorf. The volunteers later picked out that name when asked to identify famous people from a list of famous and unknown names. Because they had become familiar with the name, people mistakenly assumed Sebastian Weisdorf was a famous man. The experiment showed how subtle cues can cause errors without people's awareness.

Banaji and her colleagues came up with a twist. Instead of Sebastian Weisdorf, they asked, what if the name was Sally Weisdorf? It turned out that female names were less likely to elicit the false-fame error; volunteers did not say Sally Weisdorf was a famous woman. Women, it appeared, had to be more than familiar to be considered famous. Banaji had stumbled on an indirect measure of gender bias.

She began scouting for other techniques. In 1994, Anthony Greenwald, Banaji's PhD adviser and later her collaborator, came up with a breakthrough. Working out of the University of Washington, Greenwald drew up a list of 25 insect names such as wasp, cricket and cockroach, 25 flower names such as rose, tulip and daffodil, and a list of pleasant and unpleasant words. Given a random list of these words and told to sort them into the four groups, it was very easy to put each word in the right category. It was just as easy when insects were grouped with unpleasant words and flowers were grouped with pleasant words.

But when insects were grouped with pleasant words, and flowers with unpleasant words, the task became unexpectedly difficult. It was harder to hold a mental association of insects with words such as "dream," "candy" and "heaven," and flowers with words such as "evil," "poison" and "devil." It took longer to complete the task.

Psychologists have long used time differences to measure the relative difficulty of tasks. The new test produced astonishing results. Greenwald took the next step: Instead of insects and flowers, he used stereotypically white-sounding names such as Adam and Chip and black-sounding names such as Alonzo and Jamel and grouped them with the pleasant and unpleasant words. He ran the test on himself.

"I don't know whether to tell you I was elated or depressed," he says. "It was as if African American names were insect names and European American names were flower names. I had as much trouble pairing African American names with pleasant words as I did insect names with pleasant words."

Greenwald sent Banaji the computer test. She quickly discovered that her results were similar to his. Incredulous, she reversed the order of the names in the test. She switched the left and right keys. The answer wouldn't budge.

"I was deeply embarrassed," she recalls. "I was humbled in a way that few experiences in my life have humbled me."

The Implicit Association Test is designed to examine which words and concepts are strongly paired in people's minds. For example, "lightning" is associated with "thunder," rather than with "horses," just as "salt" is associated with "pepper," "day" with "night." The reason Banaji and Greenwald still find it difficult to associate black faces with pleasant words, they believe, is the same reason it is harder to associate lightning with horses than with thunder. Connecting concepts that the mind perceives as incompatible simply takes extra time. The time difference can be quantified and, the creators of the test argue, is an objective measure of people's implicit attitudes.

For years, Banaji had told students that ugly prejudices were not just in other people but inside themselves. As Banaji stared at her results, the cliche felt viscerally true.

IN TIME, OTHER EXPERIMENTS WOULD SUPPORT THE IDEA THAT THESE TESTS WERE MORE THAN JUST AN INTERESTING EXERCISE: The tests were better predictors of many behaviors than people's explicit opinions were. They predicted preferences on matters of public policy -- even ideological affiliations. Banaji and others soon developed tests for bias against gays, women and foreigners. The bias tests, which have now been taken by more than 2 million people, 90 percent of them American, and used in hundreds of research studies, have arguably revolutionized the study of prejudice. In their simplicity, the tests have raised provocative questions about this nation's ideal of a meritocracy and the nature of America's red state/blue state political divide. Civil rights activists say the tests have the potential to address some of the most corrosive problems of American society; critics, meanwhile, have simultaneously challenged the results and warned they could usher in an Orwellian world of thought crimes. Banaji has received death threats from supremacist groups; sensing that the tests can detect secrets, officials from the Central Intelligence Agency have made discreet inquiries.

The results of the millions of tests that have been taken anonymously on the Harvard Web site and other sites hint at the potential impact of the research. Analyses of tens of thousands of tests found 88 percent of white people had a pro-white or anti-black implicit bias; nearly 83 percent of heterosexuals showed implicit biases for straight people over gays and lesbians; and more than two-thirds of non-Arab, non-Muslim volunteers displayed implicit biases against Arab Muslims.

Overall, according to the researchers, large majorities showed biases for Christians over Jews, the rich over the poor, and men's careers over women's careers. The results contrasted sharply with what most people said about themselves -- that they had no biases. The tests also revealed another unsettling truth: Minorities internalized the same biases as majority groups. Some 48 percent of blacks showed a pro-white or anti-black bias; 36 percent of Arab Muslims showed an anti-Muslim bias; and 38 percent of gays and lesbians showed a bias for straight people over homosexuals.

"The Implicit Association Test measures the thumbprint of the culture on our minds," says 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.

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