Are you sexist? Have a tendency to think that women should stay out of science? Do you prefer the company of straight people over that of gays? Like whites more than blacks? In these enlightened politically correct times it is socially unacceptable in most circles to answer yes to many or all of these questions (depending on where you live). Some will deny that they would answer yes to any of these questions but privately do so, while others will deny even privately that they would. That is to say I might publicly decry the attitudes portrayed in the above questions and even consider myself to be tolerant and unbiased while still holding the views subconsciously.

This is where Project Implicit comes in. Project implicit attempts to uncover the unconscious attitudes of those that take the test and in the process learn something about human nature. The tests are devised in such a way that categories under study have both positive and negative words associated with them in turn. Thus you end up with four alternatives: Gay/Good, Gay/Bad, Straight/Bad, Straight/Good. Once these associations are stipulated the subject is timed in their ability to adhere to these groupings when the positive or negative words are flashed on a screen. When a positive word flashes when the Gay/Good:Straight/Bad pairings are active the subject must hit a key to assign it to the Gay/Good category and conversely when a negative word is flashed assign it to the Straight/Bad category. Each participant must complete testing rounds covering all four possible pairings, after which the amount of time it took to assign each word is tallied and the implicit bias determined.

The underlying assumption of the tests is that people with a preference for one set of pairings, say Gay/Bad:Straight/Good will respond faster than with the reverse pairings. This is meant to indicate the extra processing time required to artificially group the categories. In other words, using less politically charged groups, a combination of Natural/Food and Artificial/Buildings will seem more natural and be easier to assign the words apple, grass, rocks, airplane, computer, garage. In which case participants will do this task faster than the more unwieldy categories of Natural/Buildings and Artificial/Food (ok perhaps in this age Artificial/Food isn’t so unusual but you get the idea).

Can human attitudes be “tricked” into showing themselves in this way? The researchers think so and a mounting pile of scientific papers seems to back them up. I certainly recommend at least taking a few of the “Demo” tests, the results may surprise you. Approximately 30% of respondents register strong preference for whites over blacks or straights over gays so there is a good chance of falling into those categories despite your own expectations. The website even has a warning before the tests are administered: “In reporting to you results of any IAT test that you take, we will mention possible interpretations ……. If you are unprepared to encounter interpretations that you might find objectionable, please do not proceed further.” For some reason the words of Yoda and Luke are brought to my mind:

Luke: There’s something not right here… I feel cold. Death.
Yoda: That place… is strong with the dark side of the Force. A domain of evil it is. In you must go.
Luke: What’s in there?
Yoda: Only what you take with you.