Tuesday, 4 January 2011

The Implicit Association Test

Squirrel in a snowy tree

The book I read a few weeks ago, Blink, is about our ability of our subconscious mind to make very quick assessments, without us necessarily being aware of it. The book gives examples of where this is a good thing, for example an art expert being able to detect a fake sculpture without really knowing why, or a firefighter deciding to get out of a burning building just before the floor collapses. Some of the book is about people-watching - detecting the signals that we display fleetingly on our faces that shed light on what is really going on. Many people know about the difference between 'fake' and 'real' smiles, based on something around the eyes.

Anyway, the judgements made by the subconscious are sometimes not so positive, and sometimes even contradict the views of the conscious mind. Discrimination is one of these embedded traits, where we may profess to treat everyone as equal, strive to do so, and truly believe that we succeed. It turns out that we must never let up in our efforts, because underneath the veneer of liberty, equality and fraternity and all men being created equal, our subconscious mind is made up, and there seems very little we can do about it.

It turns out that this can be demonstrated quite easily, as I found out a month or so ago when I volunteered to help one of the other students with the research she is doing into attitudes to obesity. Given that it is an effect demonstrated through a psychological test, you might think it would take computer analysis or clever psychologists to work out what is going on, but unusually, as described in the book, it is 'an effect you can measure with a sundial'. Even the subject of the test can see what is going on, but can do very little about it - messing with the subconscious is by definition something that is difficult to do to oneself deliberately.

The task we were given was not computerised, although if you go to this website then you can try an online version for yourself. It is called the Implicit Association Test, or IAT. We were having to categorise, using ticks in two columns of boxes, words that were either 'good' or 'bad', and words that reflected people who were or weren't fat. To start with, we did the two tasks separately, but then the categories were mixed together, and we had to tick the boxes for both categories of words at the same time. The interesting part was, as you may have guessed, that it was much easier, and I mean MUCH easier, when the 'good' words were in the same column as the 'not fat' people than when obesity was associated with confidence, self-control, willpower or motivation.

The book describes the test done with race, and states that even some black people subconsciously associate blackness with badness: half the African Americans who have taken the race IAT have 'stronger associations' with white than black people (meaning that the test showed they were quicker and made fewer mistakes when the 'good' words were associated with white people). But there are things that can change the result. One student is described as taking the race IAT every day, and suddenly one day he got a positive association with blacks, and realised it was because he'd been watching the Olympics, where black people are much more positively associated with strength, stamina, and 'good' attributes.

In the research I took part in, we were shown two short videos about 'weight bias' before being asked to take the test again. I can't tell you whether my score changed at all between the first and the second time, although I was trying hard to associate positive attributes with fat people. It's a tough subject, and an astonishingly well-embedded prejudice, even when you know a lot about the reasons for fatness and the difficulties encountered by fat people.

* Did you spot the squirrel in the photo?

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