Banaji and Kang believe the IAT can be used as one measure to determine when affirmative action policies ought to be ended. Rather than pick an arbitrary amount of time -- Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor recently suggested 25 years -- the researchers asked whether such policies should expire when implicit tests show that people are really evaluating others without bias. Banaji and Kang are less interested in using affirmative action to redress historical wrongs -- they argue it is essential to fight discrimination still taking place today.
Lani Guinier, President Bill Clinton's unsuccessful nominee for assistant attorney general for civil rights and now a professor at Harvard, is a fan of Banaji's work. But she says she worries the IAT will usher in superficial changes. The decor on the walls might be important, she says, but it isn't the real problem. "I worry people will think you can depress [implicit bias] scores through sporadic interventions," she says. "That will channel our efforts toward reform in potentially modest ways that don't fundamentally change the cultural swamp in which we are living."
Harvard's Mahzarin Banaji is one of three researchers who developed the Implicit Association Test.
Banaji disagrees. Decades of research in social psychology, she says, have demonstrated that small cues can have powerful impact on the way people think and behave. Finding evidence of implicit bias, she says, is like driving a car and discovering that, although the steering wheel is being held straight, the vehicle is drifting to one side. Banaji's solution: However strange it may feel, the driver should consciously hold the steering wheel against the known bias.
"The implicit system is dumb," Banaji says. "It reacts to what it sees. That is its drawback. But if we change the environment, we can change our attitudes."
ALMOST FROM THE MOMENT BANAJI TOOK THAT FIRST RACE TEST, she says, she has applied her research to her own life. Her office at Harvard is testimony. At eye level on a bookshelf are postcards of famous women and African Americans: George Washington Carver, Emma Goldman, Miles Davis, Marie Curie, Frederick Douglass and Langston Hughes. During one interview, she wore a brooch on her jacket depicting Africa. What might seem like political correctness to some is an evidence-based intervention to combat her own biases, Banaji says.
People's minds do not function with the detachment of machines, she says. For example, when she was recently asked to help select a psychologist for an award, Banaji says, she and two other panelists drew up a list of potential winners. But then they realized that their implicit biases might have eliminated many worthy candidates. So they came up with a new approach. They alphabetically went down a list of all the psychologists who were in the pool and evaluated each in turn.
"Mind bugs operate without us being conscious of them," Banaji says. "They are not special things that happen in our heart because we are evil."
But assumptions lead to attitudes, and attitudes lead to choices with moral and political consequences. So, whether she is in a classroom or a grocery store, Banaji says, she forces herself to engage with people she might otherwise have avoided.
Just before Halloween, Banaji says, she was in a Crate & Barrel store when she spied a young woman in a Goth outfit. The woman had spiky hair that stuck out in all directions. Her body was pierced with studs. Her skull was tattooed. Banaji's instant reaction was distaste. But then she remembered her resolution. She turned to make eye contact with the woman and opened a conversation.
Shankar Vedantam covers science and human behavior for The Post's National desk. He will be fielding questions and comments about this article Monday at 1 p.m. at washingtonpost.com/liveonline.
How the Web Version Of the Implicit Association Test Works
By linking together words and images, the race bias test measures what associations come most easily to mind. People who take the Web version are asked to classify a series of faces into two categories, black American and white American. They are then asked to mentally associate the white and black faces with words such as "joy" and "failure." Under time pressure, many Americans find it easier to group words such as "failure" with black faces, and words such as "joy" with white faces. The test "measures the thumbprint of the culture on our minds," says Harvard psychologist Mahzarin Banaji.
To take the Implicit Association Test, go to https: //implicit.harvard.edu.
To better understand how the test works and your results, go to https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/demo/faqs.html
The Paper Version Of the Implicit Association Test
This test was designed by University of Washington psychologist Anthony Greenwald. It is intended to measure how easily people associate home- and career-related words with either men or women. If you can, time yourself as you do Part 1 and compare the result with how long it takes to do Part 2. Many people find grouping men with home words takes longer than grouping women with home words -- evidence of a possible gender bias. Do you think your results occurred because you took the tests in a particular order? You can repeat the tests again, this time pairing men with career words in Part 1 and women with career words in Part 2. Whichever part took longer the first time should be shorter this time, and vice versa. Results from the Web version are considered more reliable than those from the paper version.
The words in this first list are in four categories. MALE NAMES and FEMALE NAMES are in CAPITAL letters. Home-related and career-related words are in lowercase. Go through the list from left to right, line by line, putting a line through only each MALE NAME and each home-related word. Do this as fast as you can.
executive LISA housework SARAH entrepreneur DEREK silverware MATT cleaning TAMMY career BILL corporation VICKY office STEVE administrator PAUL home AMY employment PEGGY dishwasher MARK babies BOB marriage MIKE professional MARY merchant JEFF garden KEVIN family HOLLY salary SCOTT shopping DIANA business DONNA manager EMILY laundry JOHN promotion KATE commerce JILL kitchen GREG children JASON briefcase JOAN living room ANN house ADAM
The following list is the same as the one above. This time, go through the list putting a line through only each FEMALE NAME and each home-related word. Again do this as fast as you can.
executive LISA housework SARAH entrepreneur DEREK silverware MATT cleaning TAMMY career BILL corporation VICKY office STEVE administrator PAUL home AMY
employment PEGGY dishwasher MARK babies BOB marriage MIKE professional MARY merchant JEFF garden KEVIN family HOLLY salary SCOTT shopping DIANA
business DONNA manager EMILY laundry JOHN promotion KATE commerce JILL kitchen GREG children JASON briefcase JOAN living room ANN house ADAM
The Deese-Roediger-McDermott Test (Part 1)
Much as we like to believe that our perceptions and memories are always accurate, a number of experiments show people routinely make errors in how they see and remember things, without their being aware of it. Read the list of words in this box. Then refer to Part 2.