Research Spotlight: Prejudice can’t hide from psychological test

Choosing a preferred colorPeople don’t like to admit if they are prejudiced, whether it’s against blacks or gays, women or Jews, or the elderly.

But researchers of social psychology have tests that can measure conscious or unconscious bias, and one of them is the Implicit Association Test. Developed in 1998, the test asks implicit questions – as opposed to explicit – to expose bias on socially sensitive topics. Worldwide, various IAT versions have been used in more than 1,000 studies over the years. The test’s most controversial finding has been that 70 percent of people tested for their racial attitudes unconsciously preferred white people to black people, but only 20 percent reported such an attitude.

What researchers hadn’t determined up until now is how reliable IATs have been at predicting behavior related to these taboo prejudices. Now they know.

In the first study of its kind, publishing in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, an SMU researcher and others validated the IAT’s ability to predict behavior around socially sensitive topics, particularly race. The study aggregated the findings of 184 different IAT research studies, which tested 14,900 subjects, and found the predictive validity of self-report measures was remarkably low, while incremental validity of IAT measures – how much it can predict behavior over-and-above explicit measures – was relatively high.

“Within behavioral research, we humans have attitudes and feelings and beliefs that we’re not willing or able to report on, or understand ourselves,” says T. Andrew Poehlman, one of the study’s four authors and an assistant professor of marketing in SMU’s Cox School of Business. The lead author of the study is Anthony Greenwald, psychology professor and adjunct professor of marketing and international business at the University of Washington. Other authors are Eric Uhlmann, Northwestern University; and Mahzarin Banaji, Harvard University.

“This research shows that when you aggregate across many studies, it seems that non-conscious attitudes influence the way people behave in a systematic and important way,” Poehlman says. “When you have attitude domains in which people are unable to accurately report on how they feel, then using a test like this can get around some of the touchier attitudes some subjects may have.”

Studies reviewed for the analysis covered: black-white interracial behavior, non-racial intergroup behavior, gender and sexual orientation, consumer preference, political preference, personality differences, alcohol and drug use, close relationships and clinical phenomena.

Learn more at the SMU Research blog.

Read the draft article: Predictive validity of the IAT (PDF format)
UW News: Study supports validity of test that indicates widespread unconscious bias Anthony Greenwald talks about the Implicit Association Test (PDF format)
Take the Implicit Association Test at