Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Implicit Prejudice, the IAT, and the Popular Press

Over the last week, this book has been receiving a great deal of attention. It was reviewed by Richard Posner and David Brooks, along with who knows how many bloggers after it received a link from Instawhat's-his-face. I haven't read the book, and I probably won't read it, but seems to have brought the attention of the general public to research on "implicit attitudes," as this post indicates. Unfortunately, it does so by discussing the Implicit Attitudes Test, or IAT. While I'm a big fan of the cognitive unconscious (as I've said before), I am not a fan of the IAT, and as is often the case (e.g., with Lakoff's conceptual metaphor theory attached to his framing analysis), I worry that the popular presentation of a good cognitive science idea is coming in the form of its worst theoretical and empirical version.

At this point, it is undeniable that much of our behavior is either determined or heavily influenced by factors that are below the level of our awareness or that we are not able to consciously control. There are many examples of this in the literature. For example, our arousal level, which in most contexts is beyond our control (unless we're master yogis), can influence our perceptions of the attractiveness of others. Thus, studies have shown that we will rate people as being more attractive if we view their photos (or encounter them in person) immediately after a strenuous exercise session, or while we are standing near the edge of a high ledge. In these situations, our arousal levels are high, and we can mistakenly attribute the increased level of arousal to a person rather than their actual causes.

Another example of the unconscious influences on our behavior is the way our current goals affect our perceptions of value. The effect of current goals on intertemporal choice is well documented, but they can also influence current choices in ways of which we are not always aware. Imagine that we are shopping for cars, and after viewing a first car, we become hungry (though we don't consciously notice this) just before viewing a second car. If we do not satisfy this goal before viewing the second car, we will perceive it as less valuable than we otherwise would. Thus, even if the first and second car would ordinarily be viewed as equally valuable, viewing the second car while we have a strong goal that is not related to car-buying (in this case, hunger) will tend to cause us to perceive it as less valuable than the first car. This is because goal-irrelevant objects tend to be "devalued" relative to their default value.

As these and many other examples show, unconscious influences on our behavior are pervasive. Recently, however, researchers have begun to research "unconscious attitudes," and in particular "unconscious prejudices." Several methods for testing for these implicit attitudes have been developed, including implicit priming, the implicit association test (and its more recent incarnation, the Go/No-Go Association Test), and the evaluative movement assessment. The impetus for these tests was the recognition that explicit tests of unsavory attitudes and prejudices would be overly influenced by demand characteristics. Implicit tests, it was thought, would tap into these attitudes in ways that would not be influenced by conscious beliefs about things like the popularity of the attitudes. And originally, there was good reason to think that the IAT, the most popular of these tests, was doing just this. IAT performance is not completely dependent on intention, and because IAT results (in the form of rank-order preferences) don't correlate well with explicit measures, there's good reason to believe that they are showing us things that explicit measures couldn't.

It's very "sexy" (to use the social psychologists' own buzz-word) to talk about unconscious prejudices and implicit attitudes, and for this reason, it doesn't surprise me that IAT results showing that white participants seem to harbor unconscious prejudices towards African Americans, or other out-groups, are now receiving attention in the popular press. As a quote from the above-linked book demonstrates, these results are striking:
One of the reasons that IAT has become so popular in recent years as a research tool is that the effects it is measuring are not subtle…the IAT is the kind of tool that hits you over the head with its conclusions. “When there’s a strong prior association, people answer in between four hundred and six hundred milliseconds,” says [psychologist Anthony G.] Greenwald. “When there isn’t, they might take two hundred to three hundred milliseconds longer than that – which is in the realm of these kinds of effects is huge. One of my cognitive psychologist colleagues described this as an effect you can measure with a sundial.” (p.77)
Recent work,however, has shown that conclusions of "prejudice" from IAT scores may be unwarranted. First, there appear to be several methodological problems with the IAT (e.g., the evaluations of one category are influenced by those of the opposing category; see the discussion in this paper). In addition, people routinely evaluate nonwords more negatively than words. Can we infer, then, that people have an implicit prejudice against nonwords? In reality, it's likely that things like familiarity and arousal level are influencing IAT results. There are new implicit tests (e.g., the one in the linked paper) that are designed to avoid some of these problems, but even with these tests, inferring "prejudice" or even "attitudes" in general is discouraged. Thus, while it is safe to conclude that unconscious factors influence our perceptions and behavior, it is premature to conclude that we can test for the existence of unconscious prejudices.

Will the popular press take heed of the methodological and theoretical problems with IAT scores? Probably not. While Lakoff's framing analysis has been criticized by many conservatives, neither conservatives nor liberals have paid any attention to the fact that the conceptual metaphor theory upon which it is based has been largely discredited by empirical research. IAT and implicit prejudices are even sexier than framing analysis, and seem to hold appeal for both liberals and conservatives. Hopefully, like most fads, this one will eventually just fade away, at least until the research catches up with the conclusions that have sparked the popular interest in the first place.


Anonymous said...

I wouldn't throw away the IAT for the moment, though I too am not overly enthusiastic about it. The thing is that I hate explicit measures of any kind. You just can't ask people if they're racist, empathic, depressed or whatever. The emotional stroop now seems more and more discredited too. What have we left? the Rorschach and TAT? What is happening with the IAT is that lots of comments and critiques are pouring, new statistical and methodological twists, correlations with real life behaviors (eye contact, altruism, etc) and even fMRI (amygdala-prejudice stuff by Phelps). All this is good, and may lead us somewhere. The IAT is just too complicated to explain for the media to report on it, which is also good, the less people know about these methods, the more we can use them safely for our purpose. I understand your skepticism, but I wouldn't say the IAT is a fad, or at least not like phrenology or EMDR. Hey, if you're a "fan" of the cognitive unconscious, there are a lot more methods and results to be suspicious of, like for instance the incredible stuff that Bargh et al always report ;)
Thanks for the blog, it's great. 

Posted by onclepsycho

Anonymous said...

I'm all for implicit measures as well, especially in social cognition. I'd use the Evaluative Movement Assessment, rather than IAT, though, because of the way it's calibrated, and the fact that it can test instances and categories, rather than just categories (I know the IAT folks have come up with ways to test individuals, but they're very iffy). Plus, the Evaluative Movement Assessment correlates with explicit measures to some degree (I think it was about .6 in the paper I linked), and can predict some practical outcomes (e.g., the decisions of undecideds in the gay adoption study in that paper). 

Posted by Chris

Anonymous said...

This is all just junk science. It is not really "measuring" anything. People have correlated the Super Bowl winner to performance of the economy in the coming year, but there is no valid mechanism, so it is just a correlation, and does not prove ANYTHING. IAT is not reproduceable, except on an aggregate scale, and it makes no predictions about the behavior of any individual, whether they have taken the test, or not.

Unfortunately, because it has been written up in the WaPo Sunday magazine, some do-gooder congressman will not seize on it, and use it to justify some new crackpot law.

More junk from social "scientists". 

Posted by ralph

Anonymous said...

Ralph, both IAT and EMA have made predictions about people's behavior in various tasks and circumstances, and had those predictions confirmed. Check out the papers on You would do well to read the literature before dismissing the research. You could start with the papers on Greenwald's homepage, or read the paper on EMA that I linked in the post. Both will provide you with demonstrations of the predictive validity of implicit measures. 

Posted by Chris

ABM said...

Nice Blog. The EMA paper is finally out, by the way.



Jimmy M. Espana said...

What is the "popular press" ? Please, Click here and look under Homework 6 ; I don't understand what is meant by the "popular press", and I need to know this in order to do my homework. Our professor didn't mention this in class ; and my attempts to ask about this has gone unnoticed. Sorry to bother you with this; I would really appreciate your help.


Jimmy M. Espana

John Curious said...

A very delayed response to this post...

Although i agree with many of the things that you say Chris i can't say i totally agree with your belief that unconscious influences on behavior are almost entirely beyond our control.I know that you might not mean that but the way you say it here creates this impression,that our behavior is influenced by factors over which we can exert no control...

Have a happy New Year.

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