Implicit Bias: Racial Bogeyman Debunked
Very few Americans say they would not vote for a black for president, or that they object to interracial marriage, and virtually nobody says they favor segregation.
So what are people who want to see themselves as social justice warriors, fighting the scourge of racism, going to do?
Simple, they have to find a new way to label people racist. One way to do this is to test them for “implicit bias.” Administered by computer, the Implicit Association Test typically shows that people have a preference for white faces rather than black faces.
The test works by measuring how quickly people can, for instance, associate African-American faces with positive words versus European American faces with those same positive words. In one round of the test, you’re instructed to press a particular key if a positive word like “pleasure” or “wonderful” flashes on the screen and to press that same key if a white face appears. Then, in another round, the program will tell you to press the same key for darker faces and positive words. It tracks how many mistakes you make and measures how quickly you press those keys, right down to fractions of a second. The site also offers tests that measure bias against other groups, including obese people, the disabled, and the elderly, though it’s the race results that tend to dominate the discussion.Favoring white faces certainly sounds prejudiced, but does it show anything other than the fact that people associate negative things with black people? If so, how do we interpret that?
First, we have to remember that a lot of negative things are empirically associated with black people. Black people are more likely to be poor, to have limited education compared to whites, to be dependent on government assistance, to have been born out of wedlock, to commit crime, etc.
Not nice thoughts, but the truth. So does the implicit bias test simply mean people know the truth, even if it isn’t politically correct to admit it? That would explain why even liberals who pride themselves on being unbiased and black people themselves show a preference for the white faces.
Does it Relate to Behavior?But even empirically justified ideas about racial differences are unfair if they lead to people being treated according to the stereotype, rather than their actual individual merits.
It seems, however, that implicit bias has little relationship with how people actually behave. From the Chronicle of Higher Education:
But the link between unconscious bias, as measured by the test, and biased behavior has long been debated among scholars, and a new analysis casts doubt on the supposed connection.The Cut notes similar research:
Researchers from the University of Wisconsin at Madison, Harvard, and the University of Virginia examined 499 studies over 20 years involving 80,859 participants that used the IAT and other, similar measures. They discovered two things: One is that the correlation between implicit bias and discriminatory behavior appears weaker than previously thought. They also conclude that there is very little evidence that changes in implicit bias have anything to do with changes in a person’s behavior. These findings, they write, “produce a challenge for this area of research.”
That’s putting it mildly. “When you actually look at the evidence we collected, there’s not necessarily strong evidence for the conclusions people have drawn,” says Patrick Forscher, a co-author of the paper, which is currently under review at Psychological Bulletin. The finding that changes in implicit bias don’t lead to changes in behavior, Forscher says, “should be stunning.”
Given all this excitement [generated by the IAT], it might feel safe to assume that the IAT really does measure people’s propensity to commit real-world acts of implicit bias against marginalized groups, and that it does so in a dependable, clearly understood way. After all, the test is hosted by Harvard, endorsed and frequently written about by some of the top social psychologists and science journalists in the country, and is currently seen by many as the most sophisticated way to talk about the complicated, fraught subject of race in America.And the liberal New York Magazine has expressed skepticism.
Unfortunately, none of that is true. A pile of scholarly work, some of it published in top psychology journals and most of it ignored by the media, suggests that the IAT falls far short of the quality-control standards normally expected of psychological instruments. The IAT, this research suggests, is a noisy, unreliable measure that correlates far too weakly with any real-world outcomes to be used to predict individuals’ behavior — even the test’s creators have now admitted as such. The history of the test suggests it was released to the public and excitedly publicized long before it had been fully validated in the rigorous, careful way normally demanded by the field of psychology. In fact, there’s a case to be made that Harvard shouldn’t be administering the test in its current form, in light of its shortcomings and its potential to mislead people about their own biases. There’s also a case to be made that the IAT went viral not for solid scientific reasons, but simply because it tells us such a simple, pat story about how racism works and can be fixed: that deep down, we’re all a little — or a lot — racist, and that if we measure and study this individual-level racism enough, progress toward equality will ensue.
We can be more blunt about why the test has been so popular. It offered a neat explanation for the situation of black Americans — and one politically correct people find congenial. Facing the truth would require discussing the culture of the black inner city: the number of kids born out of wedlock, the prevalence of crime, schools that are poor in spite of high levels of spending, attitudes hostile to a “straight” life of work and achievement.
That has to be avoided at all costs.