A test purports to reveal hidden prejudice, but there’s little evidence its findings are meaningful.
Few academic ideas have been as eagerly absorbed into public discourse lately as “implicit bias.” Embraced by Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and most of the press, implicit bias has spawned a multimillion-dollar consulting industry, along with a movement to remove the concept of individual agency from the law. Yet its scientific basis is crumbling.
Implicit-bias theory burst onto the academic scene in 1998 with the rollout of an instrument called the implicit association test, the brainchild of social psychologists Anthony Greenwald and Mahzarin Banaji. A press release trumpeted the IAT as a breakthrough in prejudice studies: “The pervasiveness of prejudice, affecting 90 to 95 percent of people, was demonstrated today . . . by psychologists who developed a new tool that measures the unconscious roots of prejudice.”
In the race IAT (there also versions for everything from gender to disability to weight), test-takers at a computer are asked to press two keys to sort a series of black and white faces and a set of “good” and “bad” words. For part of the exercise, the test-taker presses one key for white faces and words like “happy,” and the other key for black faces and words like “death.” Then the protocol is reversed, pairing white faces with “bad” words and black faces with “good” words. (The order is randomized, so some test-takers sort black faces with “good” words first.)