The Amazing Race Race

You have no racial bias, right? Color blind as a bat? Prove it. Go to this site, choose “demonstration” and “Race IAT.” It takes about 10-15 minutes.

I promise, this isn’t some NAACP litmus test, PC “gotcha” vocabulary test or HR Department sensitivity training class. Those things deal with conscious decisions — what we choose to state as our values. This gauges our unconscious decisions — the automatic associations we make when we don’t have time to think.

I first learned of this test in Malcolm Gladwell’s terrific book Blink. The bottom line is that 80% of all who have ever taken the test take longer to complete answers when they are required to put positive words next to African American faces, assumably because at the test taker’s core the association between good and African American just doesn’t feel natural. As you may recall if you were awake in Psych 101, this is what shrinks call “cognitive dissonance.”

Again, these are unconscious attitudes that we don’t choose. As Gladwell puts it, “The giant computer that is our unconscious silently crunches all the data it can from the experiences we’ve had, the people we’ve met, the lessons we’ve learned, the books we’ve read, the movies we’ve seen, and so on, and it forms an opinion.”

Because our supercomputers are susceptible to “garbage in, garbage out,” maybe it’s not such a silly PC exercise after all to carefully consider what we are pumping into our brains through our books, movies, news media and language choices. Because it apparently does matter.

More disturbing, other studies find that those who make unconscious negative associations with African Americans also unconsciously behave differently toward African Americans. For instance, compared to how Eurpopean Americans act around European Americans, we disproportionately make less eye contact, use less welcoming body language and laugh less around African Americans. Those kinds of unconscious behaviors obviously impact personal and professional relationships, judgments and decisions. It’s not a huge leap to think similar unconscious behaviors manifest themselves when we are making hiring choices, jury verdicts, banking decisions, classroom placements and assignment desk and editing calls.

These kinds of tests of our unconsciousness show that most of us have bias in our core that we don’t really understand, bias that manifests itself in lots of behaviors we can’t and don’t control, unless we make an extra effort. Unless we make an extra effort. That’s not white guilt; for 80% of us, that’s just reality.

Some times when there is a race issue boiling in the news media or in my life, I take this test again. And I never get the result I want. Here’s hoping you do better than me.

— Joe Loveland

10 thoughts on “The Amazing Race Race

  1. jmaustin says:

    I ain’t buying it.

    Yes, absolutely, we are a product of our genes (the ones that make people – of all sorts – seem to prefer being among people like themselves), yes, we’re a product of our education and experience (the ones that instill biases and preferences that we don’t even realize); I believe all that.

    I don’t believe, though, that this test is an accurate measurement of those factors. To me it’s a test of muscle memory and the cognitive dissonance I experienced when I took it was on par with the “pat your head and rub your belly” trick.

    My name is Jon and I’m a belly-rubber. I’m not afraid to admit it.

    – Jon Austin

  2. jl says:

    Hope you’re right, Bellyrubber. But didn’t they alternate having the African American faces on the right and left sides to control for that?

  3. jmaustin says:

    They did switch…first they paired European and good on the left and African and bad on the right. Then they switched the good and bad so that you had to reprogram your reactions.

    I think you would get the same effect if the four variables were “Ham sandwich”, “green”, “Turkey sandwich” and “purple.” After you spend five minutes training yourself to associate “Ham” and “purple”, switching to “Ham” and “green” would trip you up.

  4. jl says:

    …and you don’t think that has to do with the news media’s obviously biased coverage of ham sandwiches?

  5. jmaustin says:

    Absolutely. They use code words like “high sodium” and “smoked” (and don’t think for a minute that people don’t get it; they do) and they repeat the same old stereotypes over and over. If you just go by what you get from the media, you’d think every ham sandwich killed Mama Cass and hangs out only with mustard.

  6. jl says:

    Hey, you don’t need to tell me. Some of my best friends are from the slow cured community.

  7. jl says:

    I hate to disrupt this highbrow exchange, but the serious answer is I’m not eqipped to answer (Note: This marks the first time the previous five words have appeared in sequence in the blogosphere).

    I sent an email posing Jon’s question to the folks at Hahvahd behind the test. We’ll see if they can enlighten us, because we sure could use enlightenment around here.

  8. jloveland says:

    Here is what Christopher at Harvard’s Project Implicit had to say in answer to Jon’s methodology question:

    “Thank you for writing. Our most frequently asked question is, “Doesn’t the order in which the categories are presented cause the effect?” Essentially, this poster’s muscle memory- and cognitive dissonance- hypothesis is a variation of this question that can be answered by our data.

    All of the tests that run on our site are randomly counterbalanced so that approximately half of all participants receive one set of categories first (e.g. “ham sandwich” and “green”) while the other half receive the opposite set of categories first (e.g. “ham sandwich” and “purple”).

    If the effect were caused by the order in which a person received these categories, this counterbalancing would eliminate any result when the data are looked at in aggregate. This is not the case.

    To use our race test for example, half of the participants first see “Black” paired with “Good” and the other half first see “Black” paired with “Bad.” Regardless of which order a person receives, our results show that people are far more likely to associate Black with Bad than with Good.”

    (For more questions:

  9. jmaustin says:

    No fair! You resorted to facts and informed commentary. How is that consistent with our mission, vision and key messages?


    PS – Actually, this is an example of why I LOVE the Internet because it allows us to engage smart people like Chris at Harvard.

    I withdraw my prior assertions: I guess I am subconsciously biased against ham after all.

  10. Curtis Smith says:

    Did I cheat? I just looked at the words and let me Atari trained fingers do their work. I guess I missed out on some great photos. 😦

Comments are closed.