Making the Implicit Explicit

Day 314

I never want to be that person who preaches understanding and tolerance but who won't take a hard look at my own assumptions. I believe that probing my own weaknesses with regards to understanding others is important if I want to improve as a person, a scholar of history, and a museum professional. One barrier to understanding is assumptions that are baked in through years of living in a culture that has these biases. If nothing else -- even if you don't finish reading my blog post -- read Teaching Tolerance's explanation of implicit bias; it's about 2,000 words and written very simply. Teaching Tolerance got me interested in Project Implicit's Hidden Bias Tests, a project that aggregates data by allowing people to take their psychological/sociological tests online.  

So, I tried about five of the Implicit Association Tests from Project Implicit, and I have to say, I was disappointed. These tests have had a mixed reception from the psychology community. Some say that they measure "out-group effect" in which people associate positive traits with people they perceive as similar to them. Others have concerns about the psychometric rigor or worry that people will take the results out of context in areas they could have serious implications, such as the courtroom. However, the tests have been around since 1998, and they seem to be here to stay. If nothing else, they do seem to have contributed to public understanding of the idea that bias can be a systemic issue that even well-meaning people participate in.

I'm not a psychologist or sociologist, but I have a couple of concerns with the tests' methodology from from a user standpoint. First of all, I thought that these kinds of tests were supposed to be controlled somehow, mixed in with unrelated tests so you can't tell what they're testing for. When they showed me a photo of a Black man and then a cartoon face without racially-coded characteristics and asked me to rate the pleasantness of the cartoon face, it was easy to tell that the researchers thought my answer would really be about the photograph. I think I ended up rating the smiling faces pleasant -- but would I have done differently if the exercises weren't so transparent? 

Second, several of the tests seemed to trip me up based only on game play. One type of test had me sort ideas to one side of the screen or other. First it had me group ideas in a way that goes with stereotypes, "male" or "rational" words and images on the right, and "female" or "emotional" on the right. Then, after a practice round with just the emotion words, I had to group them against stereotypes, so that "emotional" and "rational" changed position. I could tell I was being tripped up because I had just practiced sending "rational" left and "emotional right, so it was going to be hard to switch directions. To the test, however, my ability to click left or right had implications about whether I was experiencing cognitive dissonance. I want to be open to evidence demonstrating that I hold unconscious beliefs I may not want to hold, but in this case, I am skeptical.

If you're interested in the idea of implicit bias but don't want to take the tests, there's popular-science book about the Implicit Association Tests, Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People. It's by Mahzarin Banaji and Anthony Greenwald, two of the researchers who originated the idea of implicit or unconscious bias. Speaking of unconscious assumptions, until looking at her Wikipedia page I assumed Banaji was a man. I'm not sure why I assumed that. Perhaps because she co-wrote a book with a man -- not that I think people co-write based on gender, but maybe I had "male author" in my head? Do I make assumptions about the gendered-ness of first names based on English-language conventions I know but can't articulate, tripping me up on non-English names? I wouldn't think that I assume that a social psychologist is a man until proven otherwise, but maybe I do.  

In my lay opinion, the best way to learn about my own implicit biases is to learn about the biases that others hold, which have been demonstrated in more robust studies. Instead of learning about what I currently believe, I can learn about common pitfalls to watch out for in my thinking. For example, I read that white often estimate Black children's ages wrong, thinking they are older than they are. The Kirwan Institute for the Study of Rac
e and Ethnicity at Ohio State University publishes an annual State of the Science: Implicit Bias Review which summarizes the studies being done around the country in social science, brain science, and neuroscience and presents their findings for the non-specialist. They also recommend Project Implicit's tests, but as one of many resources, and the information they present is well-rounded and includes comments on how understanding of implicit biases plays out in society.