February 21, 2008

The Implicit Association Test

The Edge website recently put up a talk with Mahzarin Banaji and Anthony Greenwald, concerning the Implicit Association Test, aka IAT. In the interview they basically cover why and how the IAT was created, and the importance of the test.

Very quickly, the IAT is a social psychological research tool used to help investigators explore the various unconscious preferences and attitudes that affect our behavior. Specifically, it measures how strongly one automatically associates a concept or entity with an attribute as compared to how one associates another concept or entity with the very same attribute. So, in other words, would you be quicker to associate a flower (concept 1) with pleasantness (attribute) and an insect (concept 2) with unpleasantness (attribute) than the other way around? If so, then you, purportedly, have a stronger preference for flowers than insects.

Because the test works on split-second associations, you have no time to think about them. This means, ostensibly, that these attitudes are unconscious and inaccessible to one’s self-awareness, otherwise known as implicit associations. As well, because these attitudes are unconscious, they affect aspects of our behavior without us even realizing it, which gives way to enormous implications they have on social cognition and behavior. Being able to understand unconscious attitudes will give us great insight into all kinds of social issues concerning stereotypes, prejudices and biases. And because the IAT is able to quickly measure unconscious attitudes, it is a very useful tool for studying these social issues. Let’s face it . . . the IAT is hot right now, haha. It seems like everyone wants to do an IAT study. But the three main IAT researchers are Mahzarin Banaji, Anthony Greenwald (featured in the Edge interview) and Brian Nosek from the University of Virginia.

Yet the IAT is not without its detractors. In fact, there was a decent debate between the IAT camp and
Hart Blanton and James Jaccard in 2006, which was published in the American Psychologist. Blanton and Jaccard came up with some very worthy criticisms of the IAT. Firstly, they state that the metric the test is measured on is arbitrary for measuring a psychological dimension, such as prejudice. We don’t really know what an IAT score means. An example they give deals with self-esteem. Imagine that you scored an 8 on a self-esteem scale. And scores can range from 0 to 10. A score of 8 is meaningless in diagnosing one’s level of self-esteem. We would have to know how that score of 8 relates to behaviors associated with self-esteem. In the same way, to gauge our implicit attitudes we have to link our IAT scores to observable behaviors relevant to automatic preferences, and this has not yet been done with IAT scores.

Well, anyways, if you are interested in implicit social cognition or bias, stereotypes and prejudice, then definitely check out the Banaji/Greenwald interview and, as well, I’ll list some citations for further reading you might enjoy. Lastly, the Edge website has a link to an IAT on preferences for the presidential candidates. So perhaps you’ll find that you hold an implicit preference for a candidate that differs from the candidate that you consciously prefer, if you decide to take it that is.

For further reading:

Greenwald, A., McGhee, D. & Schwartz, J. (1998). Measuring individual differences in implicit cognition: The implicit association test. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology,
74(6), 1464 – 1480.

Blanton, H. & Jaccard, J. (2006). Arbitrary metrics in psychology. American Psychologist, 61(1),
27 – 41.

As well, the same issue of American Psychologist (vol 61 num 1) contains a Greenwald reply and Blanton counter-reply.

Go check them out and enjoy!

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