Implicit Attitude Tests Reveal Buried Bias A new series of psychological tests aims to reveal whether people who explicitly say they are not prejudiced actually harbor subconscious biases. Guests discuss implicit stereotypes and the way they affect our behavior — and how we can "reprogram" ourselves.
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Implicit Attitude Tests Reveal Buried Bias

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Implicit Attitude Tests Reveal Buried Bias

Implicit Attitude Tests Reveal Buried Bias

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This is Talk Of The Nation, I'm Lynn Neary in Washington. Prejudice can grow silently in the hidden corners of our minds. True feelings often remain unconscious, so much so that many people are unwilling to admit their prejudice. When bigotry does rear its head it can be a shock for those who think of themselves as color blind. But, if you are curious about what your subconscious might be concealing, there are now tests that can reveal your hidden bigotry. Developed by the University of Chicago and Harvard, the tests use positive and negative association, along with images, to judge how much bias you may or may not have. The experience may be humbling for some people and raises questions about how these feelings are developed and how we can reprogram ourselves.

Later this hour, in an age of blue-screens and digital effects, do we still need Hollywood stuntmen? But first, are there racial preferences hidden in our brains and can we change them? We want to hear from our callers. Tell us about an experience you had that revealed your own hidden bias and what you learned from it. And please be as honest as you can.

Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255, our email address is and you can comment on our blog Siri Carpenter is a science writer, she wrote the article "Bigot in Your Brain" for Scientific American about how we act on our hidden biases and she is with us today from Wisconsin Public Radio in Madison. Good to have you with us, Siri.

Ms. SIRI CARPENTER (Author, "Bigot in Your Brain"): Thanks for having me on the show.

NEARY: Now you begin your article with the story that Jesse Jackson in which he reveals that even he sometimes can be prejudiced. Tell us that story and what does it say about us? Does it say that we're all bigoted even if we don't like to admit it?

Ms. CARPENTER: Sure. Well, this is a remark that Jesse Jackson made some years ago in a public speech. He said, there's nothing more painful to me at this stage in my life than to walk down the street and hear footsteps and start thinking about robbery, then look around and see somebody white and feel relieved. The reason that I was struck by that quote when I read it, was that I think that it reveals something very fundamental about the human condition, which is that all of us can harbor biases in our minds that we cannot control. And that's as true for a committed black civil rights leader like Jesse Jackson as it is for the rest of us.

NEARY: Now, tests have been developed to detect these kinds of hidden biases - biases we may not even be aware of. First of all, how do the tests work?

Ms. CARPENTER: Well, there are a number of different ways that psychologists measure what they call implicit biases, that's to say biases that people may not be aware of, they can't consciously control and they may not consciously endorse. One popular way of doing that is through a method that's called the Implicit Association Test. And this is a timed computerized test in which people are asked to look at stimuli in a computer screen, faces or names or other words and to respond to those stimuli when they're put together in different combinations. And psychologists are interested in looking at the speed with which people respond to particular stimuli when they're paired in certain ways, because that reveals how closely different concepts are associated. Concepts like black and danger for example, or concepts like female and weak, or old and frail. That's one prominent method that scientists used to measure implicit biases and there are others.

NEARY: Well, most of the time do these tests reveal prejudice?

Ms. CARPENTER: Yes, they do. This particular measure the Implicit Association Test or IAT has been used for about 10 years or so. And there have been literally hundreds, I think more than 500 published studies using the Implicit Association Test and many, many hundreds of other studies using other similar methods. And they have shown a consistent pattern that shows us that all of us have these biases in our heads, these are associations between concepts that build up early in our lives. They start to build up early in our lives and they continue to build up and we can measure them.

NEARY: Let me ask you, if the tests usually do reveal some kind of a bigotry or prejudice, I mean does that in some way indicate that the test itself might be biased in favor of that outcome that, do you know what I'm saying?

Ms. CARPENTER: No, I don't think that well - of course no scientific tool is perfect. So I'll start by saying that of course that's the case. However what I would say is that what these different measures reveal is that these kinds of associations are very persistent in our heads. And it's not surprising that they are, of course we have to have associations in our heads or we couldn't survive. If we didn't associate heat, you know, a hot stove with danger, we couldn't remind ourselves to stay away from a hot stove. If we couldn't associate the effect that cars, and that cars moves fast, we would be in trouble. So these kinds of social associations are a natural outgrowth of these very basic and necessary features of human cognition. The problem comes in when our associations contradict our conscious values and our beliefs.

NEARY: We're talking to Siri Carpenter about her article "Bigot in Your Brain" which she wrote for Scientific American Mind Magazine. We're going to take a call from Maureen and Maureen is calling from the DeKalb, Illinois. Hi, Maureen.

MAUREEN (Caller): Hi, there. Thank you very much for this program. I've worked really hard my whole life to fight prejudice, but in my 20s, I'm in my 50s now, in my 20s, there was a black man walking down the street and I was in front of him walking down the street, and then I saw a white man coming towards me on the other side of the street. And I was really frightened by this black man, because I'm white. And this black man, because I was a racist and didn't know it, the black man passed me up and I felt oh, I'm so much better there's a white man across the street, I'm fine. A second or two later, I felt something in my back, it was the white man, he had put something in my back and tried to assault me. And I bit him and ran away, but nonetheless, luckily it happened in my 20s and I've had 30 years to try to bring this racism out into my life.

NEARY: How did you - once you sort of had gotten over the fear I'm sure you experienced, what did you do to begin - did you really make a conscious effort to try and change the way you looked at black man after that, and assess dangerous situation like that and have you been successful in doing that?

MAUREEN: Yes. I have consciously and everyday of my life tried my best to be as working on like truth and justice issues, peace and justice issues and I worked very hard not to look at people for their colors, but for issues and for the things that are right and wrong, and things that I believe. And that's what I worked on. As a matter of fact, I'm a photojournalist now with a bilingual newspaper, so I'm constantly surrounding myself with different cultures and I feel so much more grounded now, not just looking at things at face value.

NEARY: Thanks so much for sharing now with us, Maureen.

MAUREEN: Thank you.

NEARY: That was really interesting story. What an interesting story, Siri, and again sort of goes to what you were talking about that, you know, this is a woman who didn't want to be prejudiced and yet had that initial reaction. And then, it was proved wrong.

Ms. CARPENTER: Yeah. That's right and I'm really glad that Maureen called in, because I think her experience of detecting this bias in herself and feeling afraid of what it meant about her is a very common one and one that all too often we don't want to talk about, because we're embarrassed about our own responses. And when there's something that we're embarrassed about, our natural reaction is to not to want to talk about it, it's to want to avoid it and not admit it, not talk about with others. But, we know that these biases exist that they have a potential to affect our behavior and as it turns out research is also showing that we have the capacity to overcome them. And the kinds of things that Maureen has undertaken to do in her life in the 30 or so years that have passed since that clarifying incident, are a terrific example. She has taken real steps to try to confront honestly these biases that she recognized in herself. And my guess is that it has made a big difference in her life.

NEARY: I want to bring in Brian Nosek to the conversation now, because Brian Nosek developed the Implicit Association Test. That's one of the online exams available to measure implicit biases. And if you want to take that test, you can go to our blog at Professor Nosek is a psychology professor at the University of Virginia and he joins us from there today. Thanks so much for being with us, Professor Nosek.

Dr. BRIAN NOSEK(Psychology, University of Virginia): Thanks for having me, Lynn.

NEARY: Maybe you can explain what this test measures and how it works exactly.

Dr. NOSEK: Sure. I'll just follow up on the excellent description that Siri gave early on. Which is to say that the IAT, or Implicit Association Test, tries to measure how we associate things in our memory. It doesn't ask us whether we agree or disagree with those associations. It just tries to see, do we have links between different social groups and different types of attributes. So, are we more likely do associate black faces with bad things, and white faces with good things, compared to the reverse, or as Siri mentioned, do we associate females with weak, more easily than with strong? Or males more with leadership than females more with helpers?

NEARY: Now, I took a sample of this test. I didn't actually take the test that looks in to your hidden bigotry but another one. And I had the sense as I was doing it, I started realizing, well, I understand what they are asking me for here. And I wondered if my own consciousness of understanding that made me sort of think a bit about how I was answering. In other words, could I beat the test?

Dr. NOSEK: Yeah, the test is not a lie detector. So, if one tries to approach it and say, I'm going to fool it, then the only person that you're really fooling is yourself, because you're not giving the test a chance to do what it does. So, in order for the test be a worthwhile experience, one does have to approach it and say, I'm going to follow the rules. Which is to say, I'm just going to categorize the faces and the words that appear into groups as quickly as I can.

And to the extent that one is able to follow the rules and do the instructions appropriately. It can reveal things that are quite surprising. So, you know, I've done many of these tests on myself because I'm a great first participant, so, but I know everything about the test, at least everything that we know so far about the test. And nonetheless, I show all of these biases that we investigate.

NEARY: What's the purpose of the test, really? I mean, what are you hoping to achieve by this kind of test?

Dr. NOSEK: Well, what we are trying to achieve in terms of the social psychology is to understand how the mind works. And especially, how to understand what people can't tell us. So, one of the basic findings in social psychology, my area of research, is that people don't know everything about their own minds. And so, we can't just ask people to tell us everything that's going on in their heads because they can't see their mental operations, they only experience them. And so, they can only give us part of the answer of what is their own mind. And so, what...

NEARY: And the hope is that, if they know, they may change if it's negative. Is that the idea?

Dr. NOSEK: Well, that would be an applied interest of - if we have associations in our minds that we don't like. Then what's the implications of that? The first step of changing associations that we don't like is knowing that we possess them. So, from my own practical interest as a person, realizing that I have implicit race biases very much like your guest, Maureen, is starting to think about, well, what is it in my environment that I can change so that I might develop different associations, so that these things aren't dominating the behavior that I have everyday.

NEARY: We'll have more on the bigot in our brains and what you can do about it, in a moment. And we'll be taking your calls at 800-989-8255 or send us an email to I'm Lynn Neary, it's Talk of the Nation from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

NEARY: This is Talk Of The Nation, I'm Lynn Neary in Washington. Everyone of us unconsciously holds on to stereotypes about different social groups like age, gender, or race. Research shows that about two thirds of whites have an implicit preference for whites over blacks. But in general, blacks show no preference for one race over the other. Thanks to science, we can now test for the bigot in our brain, and research suggests we can change those attitudes. Siri Carpenter is still with us, she wrote the article "Bigot In Your Brain" in the April-May issue of Scientific American Mind Magazine. Also with us, Brian Nosek, he teaches psychology at the University of Virginia, and created an online test that measures people's unconscious biases.

As always, you're invited to join us, tell us about an experience you had that revealed your own hidden bias, and what you learned from it, and be as honest as you can. Our number here in Washington in 800-989-255. And the e-mail address is or send a comment to our blog, it's at And we're going to take some calls now. Lets go to Joe and Joe is calling from Charlotte, North Carolina. Hi, Joe.

JOE (Caller): Hey, how are you doing? I tell you what like - I've got a question in there. I'm going to start it off by saying I'd like for somebody to one day give me some sort of a definition of a bias or prejudice. Here's why, because I've never been able to understand this. If statistics or data that you read from day to day indicate that any one group of people, no matter who they are, whether it be African-Americans or Chinese, are tending towards being involved in crime or anything else that might be fearful to you. If you see those statistics, daily, if they're real, if you know, they're real and go inside your head. And then you become fearful on a darkened street because an African-American approaches you. Are you biased? Are you prejudiced at that point? Or is your brain telling you that percentages are that you're going to have a problem?

NEARY: Brian Nosek, can you respond to that?

Dr. NOSEK: Yeah, I think Joe raises a very important question about how we think about the term bias and prejudice. And I think, it's a very good point and that it doesn't necessarily mean that it's unreasonable. Although, we might say, well, gosh, are those statistics themselves biased? Are the stereotypes accurate or not? Just having a bias doesn't make it right or wrong. One can have a bias against having child molesters in one's own community and people would debate. Well, yeah, you're prejudiced against child molesters but someone might - might say, well, that's pretty reasonable for me to be. And so the issue of whether it is a right or wrong thing to have is completely separate from the possibility that it is a bias, meaning, that you might behave differently from - toward one person compared to the other. So, that the moral implications are independent of that.

JOE: Well, anything that - any other research that you've done have indicated that there is anyone place where you're able to draw even a really sick line between the evil of racism, and the weariness that people have over statistics like these.

Dr. NOSEK: Yeah, that is a good question as well. What is it that these things are really associated with? And a lot of these research finds that the types of things that people are doing with - or that are - the types of behaviors that are associated with peoples' races, by implicit race biases, are often things that they wouldn't want to do or not the extreme examples of, you know, KKK events, which we might describe as well, yeah, those are things that are clearly across that bright line. But are rather much more minor things like, apparent discomfort during an interview situation.

So, if I'm interviewing a black or a white candidate, I might show more non-verbal discomfort in my interactions with that candidate. And perhaps then make them more uncomfortable and behave less well in the interview because they're thinking well this interviewer isn't so comfortable with me. And so, it's in those occasions where we might have implicit biases and be expressing them toward individuals where we wouldn't want to be necessarily in those situations. So, even if those associations are derived from places that we might claim are rational, like the statistics you mentioned, we might apply them inappropriately or over apply them to individuals where we certainly would not want to do so.

NEARY: All right. Thanks so much for you call, Joe.

JOE: Nice work. Keep it up.

NEARY: OK. Lets take a call now from Cindy. And lets see, Cindy is calling from Michigan, I believe. Hi Cindy.

CINDY (Caller): Hi. You know, I consider myself a progressive. I believe in equality for every class and minority. But living in the suburbs of Detroit I have become totally disgusted with the predominantly black population of the city, as they blindly support this man who is a liar and a criminal.

NEARY: You are referring to?

CINDY: Kwame Kilpatrick.

NEARY: Your mayor?

CINDY: The mayor, yeah, Detroit mayor. And these feelings are like almost rageful in me. And I find myself lumping in, you know, all blacks into this ignorant scenario.

NEARY: Because we should explain for some of our listeners who don't know there is a scandal surrounding the mayor in Detroit. And that's what you're referring to.

CINDY: Correct. And those that continue to support him, meanwhile, you know, evidence comes out everyday. And I'm finding myself like in a rage over - and then every stereotype comes to my head. You know, stupid, ignorant blacks, blah, blah, blah. And I'm kind of shocked at me...

NEARY: Wait, let me ask you, these are things that in the past, did you know they were there or had they just been sort of pouring out now that this incident is occurring?

CINDY: I didn't know they were there. Like you said, you know, I believed in reparations, I get along with everybody. You know, champion minority issues. You know, Indians, whatever. And for me, to have this visceral response...

NEARY: Yeah.

CINDY: What's happening in Detroit is kind of a shock to me.

NEARY: Siri Carpenter, let me ask you if you can, first, respond to that then also Brian Nosek maybe. This idea that here's a woman who didn't think she had these prejudices and yet an event is sparking them for her.

Ms. CARPENTER: Yeah, I think, that's a real common experience. It's not unlike the one that Maureen described where she was not prepared to see these - these reactions in her, and she was shocked and disappointed to see them. And I think that in both cases what's really important is that we are honest with ourselves about what we are feeling. And that we are willing to prove what does it mean, what does it mean about what we're thinking? Where are these thoughts coming from? What is fair or unfair? Accurate or inaccurate about our thoughts? And are there things that we can do to counter those thoughts to the extent that we feel that they're not fair or accurate?

And this is something that scientists who have been studying these have been really interested in. Once they nailed down that in fact these biases exist, then the question became, how much do they matter? And what can we do about them? And you know, what can we as individuals do about them? If we want to override our bias. And there's a really, quickly growing body of research suggesting that they do matter a lot, that they affect our behaviors as Brian mentioned, things like non-verbal discomfort. The amount of eye contact that we make with people, snap judgments about other people, discriminatory behaviors, doctors' medical decisions, hiring decisions, judgments about law enforcement decisions, and so on.

All of these things are real world behaviors that matter. And there is also a lot of research now, suggesting that there are ways in which we can take it upon ourselves to - try to crowd out our stereotype perceptions and stereotype associations, and replace them with other ones.

NEARY: Cindy does that - I'm wondering how you feel about what you're hearing from Siri about the research. And whether you feel like you need to do some work now to try and overcome these feelings.

CINDY: Absolutely. I - like I said, the strongest of it makes me think, I've got work to do because - I don't know, I think, part of it may even go back to my childhood where you know, my Polish grandmother living in Detroit you know, referred to blacks as chadnas(ph) and all that. You know, I thought, I had got rid of all that.

NEARY: And yet here it is.

CINDY: And here it is. And I guess, awareness is the first step in changing it. So, yeah, very much.

Ms. CARPENTER: That's right.

NEARY: All right. Thanks so much for calling Cindy.

CINDY: Thank you. Bye-bye.

NEARY: Brian Nosek, I don't know if you wanted to respond to that because I think it's really interesting what Cindy raised that, you know, suddenly things you learned in childhood are coming in to the front of her mind.

Dr. NOSEK: Yeah, there's also another very interesting thing that she said in her initial comment, which was that she was surprised that how readily she generalized those feelings to everyone in the black community. And there is - that is a very common phenomenon, psychologists have a much too complicated name for it, called out grouped homogeneity. And what it essentially means is that we think everyone who's not like us is the same.

NEARY: Yeah.

Dr. NOSEK: And so, what we tend to do is when we have a group that isn't our group, we tend to see one characteristic and then think it applies to everyone in that group. And it's harder for us to do that or we're not as likely to do that with members of our own group. So, for example, if a mayor is white and the same scandal is happening then it's unlikely for white people in the town to get frustrated with all white people because we think, well no, white people are all different from each other because they're a heterogeneous group, not a homogeneous group.

And so, one of the things that's effective in changing those perceptions is to recognize that all groups are very different from one another. They have - all the individuals within that group are highly variable. And where this is coming up a lot in you know, in the current cultural context is people's perceptions of Arabs and Muslims and the tendency to think, well they all have these anti U.S. attitudes or they're all likely to be terrorists, without recognizing that there is this much variation in those groups of people as there are in Americans and Christians and others.

NEARY: We're talking about the bigot in your brain. If you want to give us a call, the number is 800-989-8255. We're going to take a call now from Kevin calling from Wisconsin. Hi, Kevin.

KEVIN (Caller): Hi.

NEARY: Go ahead.

KEVIN: Yeah. Well, my issue seems to be, I live in Northern Wisconsin. It's a predominantly white area and when I do see a black person on the streets, sometimes I go like I'm over compensating because I don't want to appear as if that I'm staring or that I'm diverging my eye. And I think, like I said I feel like I'm compensating for what they may feel, like if there's a bias on their end, that they think because I'm a white person in Northern Wisconsin then I am automatically racist. So, I wanted to find out what maybe on the other hand, like you know, what black people see you know, in general about white people.

NEARY: Brian Nosek.

Dr. NOSEK: Yeah. That's a great point that Kevin raises. And it brings to mind for me the concept of stereotype threat. And the idea of stereotype threat is that people can react in situations to confirm - inadvertently confirm a stereotype about themselves or about their group by trying not to. And a common stereotype about white people is that they're racist. And so, it's very plausible and reasonable in this context to start to worry of, oh my gosh, I don't want to look racist. And as a consequence become uncomfortable in interactions because of that.

And that can be a real challenge, especially in the context of the U.S. culture, where race and bias and prejudice are so palpable and are so provocative in the types of emotions that they raise. The fact that it isn't so easy to talk about race and bias within or across racial groups makes it that much more challenging for folks like, as Kevin is describing, to say, you know what, that's part of our reality. Now let's just have conversations about it rather than be clamped up and worrying that I might be expressing it.

KEVIN: Well, yeah. I also have a unique position because my family is very racially integrated. My grandmother's is from Puerto Rico and my half-sister had three kids who have a black father. So - and my great aunt actually broke the color barrier back in the 50s, she married a black person that - her back(ph).

NEARY: So you're very aware - you're very conscious of how you behave.

KEVIN: Yes. And yes, it's very interesting to have - I have two nephews and a niece who have a white mother and a black father. And just to try to see it through their eyes. And again it becomes - because I moved from a very metropolitan area in the Twin Cities to a very rural area. I feel like I'm always compensating or over compensating for if I do happen to see one or two black people that do live in my town, you know in my home. I might treat them differently and how differently am I treating them.

NEARY: All right. Thanks so much for your call, Kevin.

KEVIN: Thanks.

NEARY: We're going to take a call now from Daniel. And Daniel is calling from Tulsa, Oklahoma. Hi, Daniel.

DANIEL (Caller): Lynn?

NEARY: Yes. Go ahead.

DANIEL: I - first of all I have to say I love Talk of the Nation. And I'm a Talk of the Nation junkie.

NEARY: Oh good.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DANIEL: So, first of all, I have cerebral palsy. And I've had cerebral palsy since I was born. And I walk with forearm crutches. And so, that doesn't feel exactly that a racial issue, it deals with discrimination in a different way. That when I get around somebody who will has crutches or is you know, wheelchair, I tend to feel a little bit different. Tend to feel little bit, not scared by any means, obviously, but just different in a way that I don't know how to approach them sometimes. Now it's gotten better because I work with this kind of people more nowadays. But it used to be a lot different when I was just like growing up in high school or something. And so, I thought that was just an interesting parallel along with...

NEARY: Yes. Because there can be biases against people in all kinds of ways. Siri Carpenter, I mean, we are talking a lot about race here but there are all kinds of ways to be bigoted and I - just before you answer, Siri, I do need to remind you that you are listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News. What's your take on that, Siri?

Ms. CARPENTERS: Yeah. I think Daniel's exactly right that these biases that we all have exist certainly along far more dimensions than just race. And his experience is I think a very common one. And what's interesting is that he himself has a disability and yet still experiences those feelings and I think that's emblematic of what we all have experienced, which is to say that being a member of a minority group of some kind does not mean that we suddenly know what to do all the time. And we can be confronted with biases of our own or uncertainties of our own at anytime. And, there's a huge potential for misunderstanding and a fear of appearing prejudiced whether it's a fear of racial prejudice or any other kind of prejudice.

Most people don't want to be a prejudiced and they don't want to look prejudiced. And what that can do is make us avoid situations where that might even occur. And so, whether it's in the context of race or disability or sexuality or anything else, oftentimes our gut response is to back away from situations where we feel uncertain or embarrassed or we fear that we will be revealed as prejudiced. And that uncertainty partly stands from this kind of nebulous feeling that we should be sure to act normal. And be sure to treat everyone the same. But those are really - those are very nebulous commands that we have for ourselves.

Some research is suggesting that it might be more constructive for us to be able to make very simple basic concrete expectations, you know, if I see a person with a disability, I will look them in the eye. If I have a friend who works in a restaurant who talked about this and he said if he has a black customer, he makes a conscious effort to not assume that, that person will tip less than other people will. So that's very specific things. Instead of saying to himself treat everyone equally, he's saying make sure to shake hands or make sure to look people in the eye or make sure to...

NEARY: Thanks. Siri, we're running out of time.


NEARY: That's OK. I'm sorry we can't wrap that up a little more but I thank so much from joining us. Siri Carpenter is science writer. And Brian Nosek is a faculty member at the department of psychology at the University of Virginia. Up next, the summer of the Hollywood stuntmen. Stay with us. I'm Lynn Neary. It's Talk of the Nation from NPR News.

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