Monday, May 22, 2006

"The Disturbing World of Implicit Bias..."

...to borrow a phrase from Bruce Bower, who wrote an article entitled The Bias Finders for Science News Online last month.
A test of unconscious attitudes polarizes psychologists

. . .

However, one measure -- the Implicit Association Test, or IAT -- has proved especially popular. Since its introduction in 1998, more than 250 IAT-related studies have been published. More than 3 million IATs have been completed on a Web site established by the test's major proponents -- Anthony G. Greenwald of the University of Washington in Seattle, Mahzarin R. Banaji of Harvard University, and Brian A. Nosek of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. Other online venues run by organizations concerned about various types of discrimination also offer the IAT to visitors.

The huge IAT database contains troubling findings that have been highly publicized. For example, more than three-quarters of white and Asian test takers in the United States display an unconscious tendency to value white people over black people. Roughly half of black test takers show a pro-white bias as well. Many people who complete the IAT exhibit implicit inclinations for young versus old people and unconsciously favor men over women.

Such results challenge the traditional view in psychology that each person knows his or her social attitudes and stereotypes, Banaji says. People maintain unconscious preferences for certain social groups over others, even if they disavow those preferences when asked about them, in her view. In the post–Civil Rights era, few people admit to harboring ill will toward blacks or to acting in a racially discriminating style, but IAT results reveal a stubborn undercurrent of white favoritism with the potential to stoke bigoted behavior, in Banaji's view.

Virtually from the start, the test sparked a schism in social psychology. The IAT taps into much more than individuals' unconscious attitudes, critics contend. Familiarity with members of those groups, knowledge of cultural attitudes toward particular groups, and test-taking tactics influence IAT scores, they say.

Critics also argue that specific IAT scores are meaningless because they haven't been tied to relevant, real-world behaviors. No one should assume that he or she is unconsciously prejudiced against black people on the basis of an IAT score, these investigators hold.

Psychologist William von Hippel of the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia, has followed the IAT debate closely. "Rarely has a methodological tool garnered such strong adherents and detractors," von Hippel says. "The IAT should be vigorously researched and debated, but we still do not really understand what it reveals."
The graph below is from the previously-discussed article by Mitchell et al. After the fMRI session was over, the participants in that study completed a "liberal-conservative" IAT that used photos of the hypothetical persons presented for "mentalizing" judgments in the scanning session.

The Methods as described by Mitchell et al. (page 661):
Participants were told that we were investigating their ability to extrapolate another person’s opinions, likes, and dislikes from a small amount of information about that person. Prior to scanning, participants were introduced to two target individuals, represented by face photographs downloaded from an Internet dating site. Each target face was accompanied by a short descriptive paragraph intended to create a sense of similarity between the participant and one target and dissimilarity between the participant and the other target. For one target (randomly determined for each participant), this paragraph described the person as having liberal sociopolitical views and participating in activities typical of many students at Northeast liberal arts colleges. For the other target, the paragraph described the person as a fundamentalist Christian with conservative political and social views who participated avidly in a variety of events sponsored by religious and Republican organizations at a Midwest university.
The authors used the IAT to retroactively assign subjects to "like liberal" and "not like liberal" groups. As the graph illustrates, only 3 subjects (out of 15 total) actually had RT effects indicating they might have a closer affinity to the conservative "other" (if you believe the IAT).

Should we trust the results of any IAT?

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2 Comments:

At May 23, 2006 4:59 PM, Blogger Chris said...

You know what would be really cool? If anyone had any idea what the IAT was measuring. At this point, it's basically voodoo with better psychometric properties.

 
At May 23, 2006 8:38 PM, Blogger Dan Dright said...

"Familiarity with members of those groups, knowledge of cultural attitudes toward particular groups, and test-taking tactics influence IAT scores, they say."

Let me preface this by saying I know Brian Nosek. He's a smart guy, not to mention funny as hell.

However, I'd have to put some stock in the first of those three in particular.

The second is quite a confound to unravel experimentally, and the third is kind of a given in any social psych test unless it has absolutely no face validity like the MMPI.

The first has some biological background to it: See Baby birds and ethology. We have a tendency to react to difference, and difference may simply be certain races in unfamiliar roles.

I remain sceptical, but they sure as hell do have a lot of data.

 

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