In our live learning event Unconscious Bias in Medical Decision-Making, Quality Interactions co-founder Dr. Joseph Betancourt used data from the Implicit Association Test (IAT) to illustrate that nearly everyone has unconscious biases that impact our judgment and behavior. By nature of being unintended, or “unconscious,” it is essential to have a way to uncover our biases as a first step toward changing them. This is where the IAT comes in.
What is the IAT?
The IAT is a series of online tests designed to measure the unconscious associations you make to characterize races, genders, sexual identities, and more. It was developed by social psychologists at Harvard University, the University of Virginia, and the University of Washington. The test forms the basis for Project Implicit, an international non-profit with a mission to educate and collect data on implicit (or “unconscious”) bias.
How does it work?
When you take the IAT, you are asked to quickly sort words and images onto the left and right sides of your computer screen. Depending on the test you take, the images are of people who represent different races, ages, genders, etc. The words are either positive (“happy,” “attractive”) or negative (“angry,” “failure”). The test has five parts, in which you are asked to sort the words and images in different variations. Your response time is measured, with the idea that it will take an individual longer to respond when asked to make associations that go against his or her bias (for example, “old” and “beautiful”).
Is it accurate?
Critics of the IAT argue that it measures familiarity rather than bias. For example, if you are taking the Religion IAT, and don’t know a lot about Judaism, it might take you longer to associate characteristics with that group. But familiarity plays into the construction of biases, so it may be impossible to completely separate the two concepts. The IAT does have limitations, but it’s a useful method for identifying unconscious bias—and this is essential in the effort to mitigate its negative effects.
How can you take the IAT?
There are many different versions of the IAT, designed to measure bias among various groups. For example, there’s a test for Race (Black/White), Arab-Muslims, Gender-Science, Age, and Weight. You can choose to take one or all of them on the Project Implicit website. For a more entertaining version of the test, check out MTV’s Look Different campaign. MTV partnered with Project Implicit to create IATs on race, gender, and sexual orientation that feature celebrities including Kendrick Lamar, Daniel Radcliffe, and Mindy Kaling.
Interpreting the results
Your IAT score will indicate a “slight,” “moderate,” or “strong” automatic preference toward a certain group (depending on the test you take). Very rarely, your data may reflect no automatic preferences. When your score shows a preference, that doesn’t mean you’re prejudiced. The word “prejudiced” usually describes someone who reports negative attitudes about a group or groups of people. The IAT is designed to measure the hidden preferences you may not know you have, and which may run counter to your conscious beliefs. But it’s important to understand that your automatic preferences can influence your behavior and judgments. Acknowledging these unconscious biases is the first step to learning how to control them, so you can overcome them in your decision-making.