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Scientists study bias with association test

Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller is the former senior editor of the Bay State Banner. He has written for the Banner since 1988.... VIEW BIO

It may not be surprising to learn that most people in the United States — 80 percent of whites — harbor a pro-white bias. Perhaps more surprising is that a large minority of blacks — 40 percent — hold a pro-white bias.

These biases, uncovered through more than 15 years of research, are not the sort test subjects would commonly admit to. Not even to themselves. They are unexamined attitudes being uncovered by cognitive scientists working in the growing field of study on implicit biases, using tests that measure attitudes that most people cannot, or do not want to, admit to harboring.

“We all have these cognitive shortcuts we use to make sense of the world,” explains David Harris, director of the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute at Harvard University. “In moments of decision, it is more likely than not that these biases will influence our behavior.”

The project that gave birth to the study of implicit biases humans harbor is the Implicit Association Test, founded in 1997 by cognitive scientists working out of Harvard University, the University of Virginia and Washington State University.

The earliest version of the test measured variations in the speed with which subjects can match images of black people or white people with positive or negative words. It is designed to measure subconscious attitudes. Since 1997, different versions of the test measuring attitudes toward skin tone, gender, homosexuality and other categories have been added. In all, the test has been administered 15 million times.

The test has granted behavioral scientists unprecedented access into the recesses of the human mind.

“It’s really been a game changer in a lot of ways,” says Jessie Daniels, a professor at City University of New York who writes extensively about racism. “It’s kind of become a Rorschach Test on how you view race.”

“The main research that has really exploded is how different kinds of implicit attitudes affect decision-making,” says Carlee Beth Hawkins, a researcher with Project Implicit, the multi-university collaboration that administers the Implicit Association Test.

One such research project in 2005 found that the 50 test subjects, all trained police officers, were more likely to mistake wallets or cellphones in the hands of blacks for guns than they were if whites were holding wallets or cellphones.

In a 2008 study using the Implicit Association Test, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania and Stanford University found that many whites do not see blacks as fully human and under certain circumstances associate blacks with apes.

And multiple studies involving doctors in recent years have linked doctors’ implicit bias to overt biases in medical care, ranging from a lower likelihood that black patients will receive pain medication to a lower likelihood that black patients complaining of chest pain will be treated for a heart attack.

Black physicians in the studies were far less likely to hold an implicit bias against black patients or provide inferior treatment to black patients. But on the whole blacks are not immune to implicit biases against their own race.

In Project Implicit’s data from Implicit Association Test takers, 40 percent of blacks showed a preference toward whites, while 36 showed a preference toward blacks and 24 percent showed no preference. Among whites, 80 percent showed a preference toward whites, while 7 percent showed a preference toward blacks and 13 percent showed no bias.

Latinos and Asian test subjects showed a 72 percent pro-white bias.

A recent study suggests there can be negative health consequences for blacks who hold negative views of their race. A study published in 2013 found that black men who regularly experience racism and showed strong bias against their own race on the Implicit Association Test tend to show more signs of aging than blacks who have a positive view of their own race.

Researchers point to the dominant white culture in the United States as a major factor in test subjects’ preference toward whites, arguing that the roles blacks play in Hollywood films and negative depictions of blacks in the news media color people’s perceptions of blacks.

While blacks have earned greater acceptance in Hollywood in recent years, the popular culture is still dominated by whites. Television shows and movies with blacks in leading roles are still the exception. White actors still play the lead roles in most movies and dominate the Oscars.

“We live in a culture that perpetuates white supremacy,” said anti-racism activist Paul Marcus, director of training and education at the Boston-based nonprofit Community Change. “People think it doesn’t affect them. They think that because they’re liberals it doesn’t affect them. It does.”

With 15 years of data to study, researchers at Project Implicit have found little to no change in the biases of test subjects.

“People thought that now with Barak Obama getting so much exposure in the media, things might change,” said Project Implicit researcher Calvin Lai, a doctoral student at University of Virginia. “Our sample of 100,000 people did not show a decrease over time. In fact, it’s been quite stable over the last 10 years.”

Marcus, who has used the Implicit Association Test on students in classes he’s taught at Simmons College, says people are often surprised to find they have a pro-white bias.

“People are blown away by it,” he said. “But how else can you know your implicit biases? You can’t change something you don’t know exists.”

While there have been many research projects examining whether race biases are hard-wired into the human psyche, researchers at Project Implicit say biases can be overcome with conditioning.

“There is plenty of evidence that implicit biases are malleable over time,” says Project Implicit researcher Carlee Beth Hawkins, a doctoral student at the Center for Decision Research at the University of Chicago. “Young people have different biases than older people.”

Researchers have made some progress in examining how to manage biases in certain situations.

“Implicit bias is more likely to occur when you’re dealing with an ambiguous situation, like choosing between two job candidates with identical credentials,” said Project Implicit’s Calvin Lai. “That’s when your racial biases can lead you to weigh some criteria more than others.”

Lai says removing ambiguities, time pressure and stress from decision-making processes reduces the likelihood that people will make biased decisions.

“The less subjectivity you put into a decision, the less likely you are to make a biased decision,” he said.