Psychology professor Anthony Greenwald will be presented with the William James Fellow Award for his work on the Implicit Association Test.
Psychology professor Anthony Greenwald will be presented with the William James Fellow Award for his work on the Implicit Association Test.Photo by Joshua Bessex
Even though a black man sits in the White House, and a gay woman legislates in the Senate, according to nearly two decades of research by a professor of psychology at the UW, Anthony Greenwald, most people are racially, ethnically, religiously, or sexually biased.
In 1995, Greenwald and Mahzarin Banaji developed the Implicit Association Test (IAT) and uncovered this disturbing truth.
Last week, for this contribution to the field of scientific psychology, the Association for Psychological Science (APS) announced they would present the William James Fellow Award to Greenwald at the APS’s 25th anniversary celebration.
When the test was first developed, Greenwald said he began administering the IAT on UW undergraduate students from psychology classes — and the results were shocking. The test revealed the majority of students, especially caucasians and asians, showed an “automatic white preference.”
Since then the test has been tweaked, improved, and used in contemporary instances. Greenwald analyzed election results with the IAT.
“We found that Obama suffered by being black,” Greenwald said. “He got fewer votes because of race biases.”
Greenwald explained the IAT tries to tease out hidden associations made by our unconscious. It accomplishes this by measuring the time it takes our brain to sort words and images.
Researchers can discover how closely a participant’s brain instinctively links various words with a particular set of images by measuring the average time it takes participants to sort these objects.
During the IAT, a computer flashes either a word or picture at subjects who are asked to either move the word or picture to the right or left.
The words that appear are either pleasant, like “Joy,” “Love,” and “Peace,” or unpleasant, like “Agony,” “Terrible,” and “Horrible”; depending on the social preferences researchers want to test, the pictures belong to either of two categories. In the race version of the experiment, the pictures depict either European American or African American faces.
In the first round of the race IAT, participants are asked to sort the photos of African Americans together with positive words to the right and European Americans with negative words to the left. In the second round, the test now prompts participants to group African American faces with negative words and European Americans with positive.
Participants perform the sorting that aligns with their implicit mental connections faster than the one that does not. So by measuring the time it takes participants to complete both rounds of the IAT, researchers can discover subject’s underlying mental racial biases.
Greenwald said at first even he was skeptical of the test and the consequences of its conclusions.
“It was quite a while before I was willing to say this is a measure that people have in their heads a stronger association between racial white and pleasant and racial black and pleasant,” Greenwald said.
But Greenwald cautioned an over-interpretation of the IAT.
“[The IAT] doesn’t measure prejudice or racism,” Greenwald said. “Those imply hostility and harmful behavior. But it does measure a racial preference, and we think that preference can be significant socially.”
Similarly, UW psychology professor Geoff Boynton clarified that the IAT cannot sniff out prejudiced people that harbor hatred or ill intent for minorities.
“These are just quick decisions that the brain makes based on prior information that have biases,” Boynton said.
Greenwald said this understanding of the mind goes against decades of traditional scientific wisdom. He said that 30 years ago most scientific psychologists figured human behavior was determined by explicit, conscious thought. The IAT helped to disprove this naive view of the mind.
However, the idea of a subconscious is not new. Sigmund Freud revolutionized the field of clinical psychology by breaking down the human mind into the id, ego, and super-ego. But Boynton said the way modern psychology views subliminal cognition “is not such a fluffy idea having to do with your mother or something like that.”
Rather, professor emeritus of psychology Earl Hunt explained that the contemporary view of cognition is more analogous to a man trying to ride an elephant.
“The rider is our conscious cognition, fairly slow, deliberate, considers things,” Hunt said. “The elephant is our unconscious, a very quick gut feeling that we may not even be aware of. The rider is trying to keep the elephant on task … but the problem is the elephant is really stupid.”
Hunt said the elephant, or human unconscious, reacts to emotions or statistical associations. He said, “The genius of the IAT lies in its ability to put the rider and elephant in conflict.”
Greenwald borrowed the stroop effect from biological psychology to create this tension between the deliberate conscious and the implicit subconscious.
In a 1935 paper, American psychologist John Stroop described how it took longer for individuals to read the name of a color if the name and the color font did not match: for example, the word “red” written in blue font. This is called the stroop effect.
“What [Greenwald] did was very creative,” Hunt said. “He looked at occurrence and a logic that was developed for a completely separate field, and he realized it could be applied in the social-psychological realm. That’s creative.”
UW professor of psychology Geoffrey Loftus had more kind words to add about Greenwald’s attitude toward scientific research.
“I’ve known him for probably 30 years,” Loftus said. “He thinks a great deal about scientific methodology, statistics, and data analysis, and he’s very sophisticated in these areas. He’s extremely proficient and extremely highly regarded as both a researcher and a mentor to his graduate students.”
This hard work and scientific dedication has helped him win the William James Fellow Award.
Greenwald said he was grateful to receive the recognition but noted, “Oh, I’m too old to be excited by this.”
Reach Science Editor Sohrab Andaz at email@example.com. Twitter: @SohrabAndaz
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