Testing for things we don't want to know Psychologists say even those who think they are free of prejudice can betray deep-seated biases.

October 25, 1998|By SEATTLE TIMES

When Anthony Greenwald and Mahzarin Banaji demonstrated their new test for detecting biases a few years ago, many colleagues who took it refused to believe the results.

But Greenwald, a University of Washington psychology professor, and Banaji, a Yale University psychology professor, tested the test, silenced the criticisms and now have broad support for a tool that can tell us some things we may not want to know.

Their Implicit Association Test can be configured to look for any kind of latent prejudice. Among the results it has turned up so far are these:

* Ninety to 95 percent of people tested have unconscious prejudices.

* White people and Asian Americans have an equal preference for white people over black people.

* Black responses are varied, split between favoring whites, no preference and favoring blacks.

* Men and women equally hold society's prejudices against women.

* The young are favored over the old.

The suspicion that we all harbor our society's basic prejudices isn't new, and there are numerous studies in which these prejudices show up, but this is the first time the proof has been demonstrated on the unconscious level.

The test operates on a simple, universally accepted principle.

The brain makes associations. The stronger an association, the quicker the brain reacts. Computers make it possible to accurately measure those reactions.

For example, in the black/white test, it usually takes twice as long to strike a key associating a pleasant word with a black person - or a key associating an unpleasant word with a white person - as to do the reverse.

Scientists are finding other ways to dig deeper than what people say about their biases.

Two researchers at Purdue University connect subjects to equipment that measures biological functions. After a few minutes, a stranger enters the room where the subject is sitting alone and proceeds to check the equipment.

Anytime a stranger enters the room a person's heart rate goes up. It goes up more if the new person is of a different race. Black men get the biggest reaction.

Even other black men have an increase (about two beats a minute) when another black man enters the room. The biggest reaction is that of white men who reacted little to other white men but whose heart rates soared by 10 beats per minute when a black man walked into the room.

Black men's heart rates slowed two beats when a white man entered the room.

The researchers also said subjects gave longer but less bright smiles to people of a different race, apparently making a conscious effort that contradicted gut feelings.

Greenwald and Banaji have put up a Web site - http://depts.washington.edu/iat/ - with information about the Implicit Association Test and sample tests for gender, race and age bias that anyone with the right browser can take.

Like many people, Greenwald and Banaji thought they had rid themselves of prejudices, but the tests showed even they retained the seeds of biases antithetical to their conscious values.

Both researchers blame the culture for saddling individuals with prejudices. No one has a choice about being exposed to the culture's values.

Banaji says it is an unfair burden for a society to put on its citizens. You can't just tell a class of children: Don't be prejudiced. "It is impossible to say change yourself when we as a society will continue to perpetuate inequalities ..."

The society itself has to change, he says. Banaji suggests that Supreme Court justices, senators and other people in positions of power take the test and examine their views.

Pub Date: 10/25/98

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