What if we’re not the magnanimous people we think we are? That seems to be the conclusion of the past few decades of social psychology research. Freud stuck a dagger in the comforting idea of complete, conscious self-awareness, but experimental findings suggest that not only do we not know ourselves, if we did, we might not invite ourselves over for dinner.
This research takes Freud’s dagger into our vanity and twists it. One of the greatest sources of torque is what’s called the Implicit Association Test, a computer-based assessment that susses out unconscious biases. One version, the Race IAT, reveals that 75 percent of its takers, including some African Americans, have an implicit preference for white people over black people. The story of the IAT, and of prejudice in general, is told in the accessible and authoritative “Blind Spot” by Mahzarin R. Banaji, one of the test’s chief developers, and Anthony G. Greenwald, the researcher who created it in 1994.
(Delacorte) - ‘Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People’ by Mahzarin R. Banaji and Anthony G. Greenwald
Before reading on, I suggest that you join millions of others and take a test yourself. Go to implicit.harvard.edu and click on “Demonstration.” You’ll have a choice of a dozen or so tests (included are Weight, Age and Race IATs), but not before reading a disclaimer: “If you are unprepared to encounter interpretations that you might find objectionable, please do not proceed further.” The glint of the knife.
The Race IAT works like this: One at a time, it presents black faces, white faces, good words (“joy,” “love,” “peace,” etc.) and bad words (“evil,” “failure,” “hurt,” etc.), and you must respond as quickly as possible by pressing one of two keys. If you work faster when good words are assigned to the same key as white faces, you purportedly prefer white people.
Some psychologists have critiqued the paradigm by saying it merely tests awareness of stereotypes, not endorsement of them. But the subconscious cannot distinguish between the two; it speaks only in the language of association. It can handle “white equals good,” while a distinction such as “other people believe white equals good” gets lost in the wash.
The best indicator of the test’s validity is its prediction of behavior. An automatic white preference has been found to correlate with, for instance, suboptimal treatment of black emergency room patients, unfavorable judgment of black job applicants, laughter at racist jokes and voting for John McCain over Barack Obama. What’s more, scores on the Race IAT predict such discrimination even better than do overt statements about one’s beliefs. Banaji and Greenwald suspect that the discrepancy between implicit tests and explicit statements results in part from reputation management — people don’t want to express their biases openly — but mostly from dissonance reduction: They don’t want to admit their biases to themselves.
Self-deception is understandable. Greenwald describes becoming aware of his automatic white preference as a “moment of jarring self-insight. . . . I can’t say if I was more personally distressed or scientifically elated to discover something inside my head that I had no previous knowledge of.”