If someone asked you how deeply you subscribe to biases- based on race, age, sex, sexual orientation, or religion- what would you say? The more open-minded of us usually try to avoid prejudice at all costs, to the extent that we reject our natural tendency to generalize. But even if we don’t accept it, society exposes us to a barrage of prejudiced perspectives on a daily basis.
How many times do you see a black criminal at large on the local news? How often do household cleaning product commercials center on women? How does the teenage character behave on prime-time sitcoms? These small, frequent examples spread a variety of stereotypes, and impact the way we perceive others, even if we feel loath to recognize such bias.
Since most people don’t want to admit upholding prejudice, Harvard psychologists devised the Implicit Association Test (IAT). The IAT tests whether an individual has a preference for certain ideals of gender, race, and other categories, all of which indicate bias. The test works like this:
Below I’ve provided a list of words, and four categories. The IAT asks you to group the words provided into one of two columns. Each column represents two categories- in this case, Male & Career, and Women & Family. Go down the list and tap the appropriate column on your screen for each word as quickly as you can without making any mistakes:
You probably found that test fairly simple. Now try it with two of the categories switched (remember to go as quickly as possible):
Most people have a much easier time with the first test, because the association between “Male” and “Career” feels almost intrinsically right. I would venture that most of the people that visit this site don’t believe women can’t have careers, or that men have no domestic responsibilities, but that doesn’t mean years of gender-role stereotypes in society and the media haven’t impacted our expectations.
If you want an even more disturbing realization of personal prejudice, try the Race IAT. This test groups by the following categories: Good, Bad, European American, and African American. 80 percent of test-takers reveal a strong preference for whites, and this includes non-white participants. Half-black author Malcolm Gladwell writes about his experience taking the Race IAT in his book, Blink:
“I was trying as hard as I could, and in the back of my mind was a growing sense of mortification. Why was I having such trouble when I had to put a word like “Glorious” or “Wonderful” into the “Good” category when “Good” was paired with “African American” or when I had to put the word “Evil” into the “Bad” category when “Bad” was paired with “European American”?…Does this mean I’m a racist, or a self-hating black person?”
Of course, most people who take the test don’t claim to have any conscious racial prejudice whatsoever. This test doesn’t make liars of them; it simply reveals a tendency to favor stereotypes, one that many of us can’t bring ourselves to admit.
The IATs on Harvard’s website provide many opportunities for such eye-opening experiences: Sexuality, Age, Weight, and National Origin, among others. One test even pairs the Good/Bad dichotomy with George W. Bush/Any Other President. That test bills itself as, “a new method of appraising public support for the President of the United States.” Once again, you can access these tests here.