Hey, how many biases do YOU have?

| August 28, 2006 | 9 Replies

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.


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Category: American Culture, Bigotry, Culture, Psychology Cognition, Recommended Reading/Films/Sites, Web Site

About the Author ()

Erika is a PhD student in Social Psychology living in Chicago. Here on DI she most often writes about current events, psychology, skepticism, media and internet culture.

Comments (9)

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  1. Erich Vieth says:

    These are terrific tests in that they illustrate that it takes effort to keep one's mind "neutral." And it doesn't just take a moment here or there to have good mental "hygiene." It is an ongoing effort. I zoomed through the first list at the mental equivalent of 60 mph. For the second column I had to slow down to 25 mph. It makes you think about how many distracted and overwrought people are willing to slow down and keep things properly organized in their heads.

    Why is it so important to put in the effort to tune our categories (to keep them valid as well as reliable)? Because we are apt to ACT on them, especially when in a hurry (who isn't in a hurry these days?). I can't think of any better starting point to cleaning up our approaches to categorization than becoming aware that we have certain unaccepable tendencies in the first place. Taking this test was an eye-opener, a first important step. Thanks for sharing.

  2. high and mighty says:

    erich, you are absolutely right. it does take effort, and I am honest enough to admit that I am biased and prejudiced. Its easiest to hate everyone, but not practical. Good topic choice Erika

    I have mentioned to others that it is almost a neccesarary to discriminate, removing the negative associations, of course. It is also honesty to admit that we all…every single human animal has bias. The political correctness that permeates America seeks to deny such an obvious fact, thus not being able to properly deal with this, but more like sweeping it under the rug. In conversations, I have mentioned that I have biase and prejudice, and have caused almost audible gasps from the listeners. Ridiculous

  3. Erika Price says:

    Every now and then, you hear someone say that they miss the pre-civil-rights era of outright racism. You didn't have to guess about a persons motives, then, and no one made the claim that prejudice didn't occur, the way some people do now. But somehow I think the people who say such things don't really mean they want to return to a period of segregation and (even worse than current) police brutality.

    Why should we own up to our biases? The concept of sociological imagination comes to mind. The more you recognize social issues, the more of a likelihood you have of responding to them in a more productive way. Your own personal, veiled prejudice becomes a social issue, which gives greater perspective and makes it easier to combat such lazy thinking.

    For a more lighthearted, offcolored perspective, check out the Broadway play Avenue Q's song, Everyone's a Little Bit Racist.

  4. Jason Rayl says:

    Without biases, we wouldn't be individuals. Think of all the biases you have that are relatively harmless. I myself have a profound bias against country music. Can't stand it! And it extends beyond the music to cultural stereotyping. The minute I hear that twangy, Texan drawl singing, I immediately have an image of the kind of person it seems to represent, and it isn't anyone I'd willingly hang around with.

    Fortunately, I've never met that person, so I realize that the music itself embraces a bias insofar as it intentionally attempts to portray that "kind" of person, and does s successfully–just as does most rap. If the bias is there to be evoked, then the artist is also consciously evoking it, and playing to it.

    I have literary biases–against because of a "type" of person being played to, which is inherent in the presuppositions inherent in the texts.

    But the "harmful" biases, often, are not so useless. I managed once to successfully steer a group of people out of harm's way by recognizing the tell-tales of the sort of people we were moving toward, and then guiding those with me away.

    But the biases that predetermine the so-called "roles" we are "supposed" to inhabit, those are insidious–not because they deny the possibility of stepping outside certain boxes (some people are quite happy and content in those boxes) but because they erect barriers against recognizing what is "cultural" and what is "human".

    Men are supposed to do XYZ, women are supposed to do ABC. Children are supposed to do EFG, and "girl" children should be doing PQR.

    There seem to be certain in-built proclivities based on hormone triggers, etc, but if we start out the gate expecting people to turn out a certain way, how can we tell where the hormones end and our expectations begin?

  5. Pretty cool post about an interesting test. I think the bottom line is, the IAT reveals subconscious mental associations among concepts that might be inconsistent with our conscious decisions and efforts to "fight" our stereotypes and prejudice. That should not be discouraging (the fact that we do have stereotypes and prejudice), insofar as it reveals how human psychology works. However, the fact that prejudice is a "natural" phenomenon isn't an excuse for bigots or sexists or any prejudice-promoter. I think whatever progress we have made as a species has been largely due to our ability for complex thought and invent concepts such as "morality", and move beyond our natural "instincts".

    Ok, enough rambling for today =)

  6. Artemis says:

    I found both the post and the responding commentary very interesting. I agree with Jason; bias is part of being human. And, as high and mighty points out, we are human animals with an ingrained tendency to bias.

    As evolved human animals we need to exercise mindfulness around choosing which biases serve us and which ones run us unconsciously. Erich's post on regions, dialects, and religion provides a strong point that we often DON'T choose our biases or our beliefs.

  7. grumpypilgrim says:

    This post and its discussion — i.e., the recognition that we all have biases — reminds me of an email dialogue I had years ago with a Republican social conservative, who insisted that the Democratic party was the party of special interest groups. Even when I pointed out that both political parties contain many political action committees (PACs) focused on various issues, he still insisted there were no special interest groups — none — in the Republican party, nor (perish the thought!) bias in him.

    Bias truly is in the eyes of the beholder. For many, this means only the other guy is biased. For others, it means acknowledging we are each biased in various ways, and trying to maintain an open mind about it, so we do not become too convinced of our own infallibility.

    This is one reason why I am optimistic about the future of the Democratic party. America becomes increasingly diverse every year and, as it does so, the political party that best manages America's diversity stands the best chance of success — both in winning elections and in producing successful policies once in office. Republicans have shown they can win (or steal) elections, but they have proven utterly inept at producing winning policies, and the reason appears to be a profound insensitivity to America's many opposing voices. Instead, they try to silence their opposition with ridicule, corruption, strong-arm political maneuvering, unconstitutional repression, presidential tyranny, manipulative propaganda…the list goes on and on. Their methods — at least during the past six years — have more in common with Stalin and Hitler than with anything that resembles democracy. As America becomes increasingly diverse, it will (at least, I hope it will) recognize that it needs leaders who respect that diversity…and that doesn't appear to be the Republican party. Indeed, the paranoia that Republicans have been able to generate in the aftermath of 9/11 appears to be the only thing that has kept them afloat this long, and that is hardly a strategy for long-term success.

  8. high and mighty says:

    all well and good then. We have established that we are, in fact, as humans, very biased. Now I wonder, perhaps simplistically, why this is bad in some cases, and not in others? To exclude a person based on skin color is bad, while excluding someone based on lack of commonality is good. Regardless of why, someone will get hurt. So why is this acceptable in some cases, and not in others?

  9. Erika Price says:

    Assuming that by "excluding based on commonality", you mean "not associating with someone greatly unlike oneself"; I don't see a huge difference between judging a person on individual differences and racism. I think both often defy logic, though both have an understandable natural basis, and public perception has merely colored one as offensive and taboo, and the other as a normal way of making social contact. However, both still take place.

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