Sunday, February 13, 2011

Are you a bigot?

I am.

Harvard's Implicit Association Test (IAT) is based on the curious discovery that people tend to be faster connecting two concepts they normally associate together than two they do not.

The IAT works as follows. Participants are asked to click either the letter "E" or the letter "I", depending on words that pop up on the screen. For example, an IAT relating gender with career starts by asking participants to click "I" whenever a female name pops up and "E" whenever a male name pops up. So:

Ben: E
Emily: I
Paul: E
John: E
Laura: I

Next the participant is asked to click "I" when a career-related word pops up and "E" when a family-related word pops up. So:

Professional: I
Wedding: E
Parent: E
Job: I

The third section complicates the situation by asking participants to click "E" if a female name OR a family-related word pops up, and "I" when a male name OR a career-related word pops up. So:

Professional: I
Tom: I
Wedding: E
Mary: E

Fourth and last, the situation is reversed. "E" for female name or a career-related word, "I" for male name or a family-related word.

Job: E
Laura: E
Parents: I
John: I

Throughout, the participant is asked to respond as quickly as possible. The idea is that participants who implicitly (even unconsciously) associate women with domestic life and men with professional life will be slower to click "E" and "I" correctly when they are asked to associate women with work and men with family.

Working my way through that particular test I found myself smiling for, despite myself, I did indeed fumble over the fourth section. Try as I might, I kept confusing the words when I tried linking women with work. Professional-sounding words just naturally seemed associated with men.

At the end of the test I was given this result:

Your data suggest a moderate association of Male with Career and Female with Family compared to Female with Career and Male with Family.

No surprises, yet I had thought myself pretty open-minded and past conservative assumptions about women being connected to domestic life, men with work. Deep down in me somewhere, it seems, linger prejudices I'm barely aware of.

I am not alone. For this test, 32% of all respondents had the same result as me, of a "moderate association" of men with career and women with family. Another 24% had strong associations and 20% had slight associations. A total of 76% of respondents connected women with family, men with work, compared with only 6.3% connecting men with family and women with work.

What other bigotries lurk within me? Many!

Another test uses silhouettes of fat and thin people, matching them with either positive or negative words like "joy", "terrible", "happy", "nasty" and so on. My result:

Your data suggest a strong automatic preference for Thin People compared to Fat People.

Once more, I'm not alone, I belong to the 25% of participants with strong preferences for thinner people. In total 70% have preferences for thin people, compared with 12% with preferences for fat people.

The next test associates images of white American faces and black American faces with either harmless objects or weapons. The weapons here are comical - medieval mace, extravagant battleaxe, cutlass, cannon, handgrenade and so on - yet I could feel myself hesitating to associate them with white people! My result:

Your data suggest a moderate association of Black Americans with Weapons compared to White Americans.

Once again my results are indicative of wider results, with 72% of respondents associating black people with weapons.

I could go on and on. I've sat several of these tests and they usually indicate some kind of horrible prejudice on my part. Apparently I am anti-black, anti-Muslim, anti-Buddhist even!

That I (to my knowledge) don't behave aggressively towards women, blacks, fat people and so on is important of course. We may control our prejudices and override them. But it could be that, beneath the layer of politically correct rhetoric that dominates modern public discourse, most people are harbouring dark prejudices they may not even be aware of.

So it would be particularly intriguing to see if anti-racism or anti-sexism advocates also implicitly hold negative views of those they represent.

Try a few tests yourself here!

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