To nobody’s surprise, it turns out that unconscious prejudice has little effect on human behavior.
Are you a racist? A sexist? A homophobe? You might want to find out. Even if you think you’re unprejudiced, you’re probably wrong. Unconsciously, you’re rife with bias, you bigot, and you need to be re-educated.
Doubt me? I’ve got a little test for you to take. Millions of people have already taken it. It’s called the “Implicit Association Test” (IAT), and it asks you to make snap decisions on the basis of images or words flashing across the screen. You’ll tap certain keys to indicate white or black faces — or Arab or other names — and then associate faces or names with good or bad items or characteristics. For example, the test allegedly shows that people are likelier to associate black faces with weapons and white faces with more-harmless objects. Or they might associate Arab names with “bad” words and non-Arab names with “good” words.
There are legions of people who take the notion of implicit bias very, very seriously. Hillary Clinton thought it could explain why cops shoot black suspects. Diversity trainers make piles of money “revealing” unconscious bias and explaining how it allegedly influences hiring and other workplace decisions. Universities beat students over the head with the notion that they are racist whether they like it or not. To some, it’s a key explanation for persistent racial disparities in education, housing, employment, and law enforcement — and a justification for cultural retraining.
There’s no way to show that you’re immune to implicit bias, because you are by definition unaware of your own subconscious. Indeed, even if you do well on the IAT, take it again and you might flunk. I’ve taken the test at different times on different days and achieved wildly different results. Is my mind that malleable, or is the test mostly a game, a Ouija board of the mind conjuring up the ghosts of our own bigotry? After all, we’re talking about the hocus-pocus of the unconscious, the part of ourselves that we don’t even know exists.
Last week The Chronicle of Higher Education reported that researchers — including one of the founders of the IAT — from Harvard, the University of Virginia, and the University of Wisconsin–Madison had analyzed the results of hundreds of studies of the test involving almost 81,000 participants. For those who believe in the power of the unconscious, the results (to quote one of the researchers) “should be stunning.” For the rest of us, they’re unsurprising. The researchers find
that the correlation between implicit bias and discriminatory behavior appears weaker than previously thought. They also conclude that there is very little evidence that changes in implicit bias have anything to do with changes in a person’s behavior. These findings, they write, “produce a challenge for this area of research.”
You don’t say.
It turns out that even if you look at the studies advanced by the IAT’s defenders, the link between implicit bias and discriminatory behavior is “slight.” In the Chronicle’s words, “everyone agrees that the statistical effect linking bias to behavior is slight. They only disagree about how slight.”
So why is implicit bias so widely accepted as a cause for real-world discrimination? Allegedly, “there’s been pressure on researchers over the years to make the science of implicit bias sound more definitive and relevant than the evidence justifies.” When people are hungry for solutions to racial disparities, they’ll latch onto science for answers — especially if those answers reinforce the dominant narrative of entrenched American bigotry.
I don’t doubt at all the human capacity for prejudice. But the barriers to racial reconciliation in this country don’t lurk in the unconscious. Combine the lingering effects of centuries of explicit discrimination with wildly different concepts of racial justice and you have a recipe for enduring conflict. It’s tempting to believe that there’s a psychological fix, especially when that fix dovetails with your ideology. But it’s wrong.