Nobody likes to believe they are prejudiced, even if a bias test tells them they are. Many people deny that they hold racist or sexist attitudes, or that they discriminate against certain groups of people. But both anecdotal and scientific evidence suggests that a great many of us do, in fact, hold negative stereotypes of groups who are different from us.
So how can we find out how prejudiced people are, if we often aren’t aware of our own biases?
Introducing the bias test
About twenty years ago, researchers developed The Implicit Association Test. This is a clever and sneaky assessment tool. It is based on the finding that people respond more quickly to a word when it is preceded by a word with an associated meaning. For example, you might recognize the word “cookie” more quickly if it is paired with the word “sweet” than if it’s paired with “gravel.” You don’t have any control over that. It’s the way your brain works.
The IAT applied this finding to measuring subjects’ attitudes about different groups. For example, the word “kind” might be paired with either “woman” or “man.” If subjects react more quickly when they see “kind” paired with “woman” than with “man,” that tells us that they have an underlying belief that women are kinder than men. You really can’t fake this test. It will reveal your attitudes about different groups whether you admit them or not.
The IAT has been used in thousands of studies and it has been proven to predict a wide variety of behaviors, both in individuals and in groups. For example, scores on the IAT predict how close people will sit to an African-American, whether human resource managers will discriminate against hiring obese people, and many other behaviors.
The limits of the implicit bias test’s validity
So, here’s a question: If you’re a business leader who wants to foster a diverse, inclusive work environment, how about including the IAT as one of your hiring selection assessment tools? It seems like a great idea, but there’s a big problem. People’s IAT scores are not a static measure of who they are. Your score is a result of your particular situation, personality, and history.
In other words, context matters. You might have a low IAT score, indicating that you are relatively open-minded about a particular group, but if you spend time in a highly-prejudiced setting, you become more likely to engage in biased behavior. On the other hand, if you score high on the IAT, working in an inclusive setting may well elicit more accepting, unbiased behavior from you.
So, if you can’t use the IAT to screen out prejudiced employees, what can you do to promote open-mindedness in your company? You can work on creating a culture of respect and equality. You can model inclusive behavior. You can refuse to tolerate blatant or subtle discrimination. You can listen and learn from different kinds of people. You can respect group differences but also recognize our profound similarities.
If you would like to learn more about reducing prejudice and building community in your company, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.