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How color-blind are you … really?

Story by Chris Graham

How well do you think that you know yourself?
For example, about your racial biases – of course, you don’t have any racial biases. You’re color-blind.
Take this test – you can be done in around 10 minutes, give or take – and get back to us.

Surprised, huh?
I was, too – and so was the guy who devised the test.
“I had the exact same response when I did it on myself – and that is a very reasonable response, because it’s so different, the way of measuring and sometimes what it reveals,” University of Virginia researcher Brian Nosek said in an interview for today’s “Augusta Free Press Show,” echoing my sentiments raising question with his Implicit Association Test’s assessment of me having a moderate bias toward white people over black people.

“Then we think, Well, we think what we think consciously. So I did the test the same way you did, showed a strong bias favoring whites over blacks, and thought, Wait, something’s wrong with the test. That can’t be me. How is it that the test is doing that?” Nosek said.

More than 20,000 people a week take the IAT online. For those of you who weren’t able to take the time to take the test, the IAT is actually a two-part test – part one involving self-reporting of what takers perceive their feelings to be on issues involving race, part two getting into a series of images and words that test-takers are asked to associate.
The IAT “is a test that comes out of a long history in psychology which identifies two interesting facts about ourselves,” Nosek said. “One is that we might not want to say some things about ourselves because we don’t like that we have those feelings, or we don’t want others to know that we have those feelings. And another is that we don’t necessarily know our own minds. So the possibility that is very intriguing in modern psychology is that we have a lot of knowledge about ourselves, but incomplete knowledge.”

The test “tries to look at associations that people have in their minds that they may not even be aware that they have – and might be against what their own conscious beliefs or ideas are,” Nosek said. “And it does so by measuring how quickly people can associate words into groups. So it says, It may not be sufficient to ask people what they think. Because they may not know or have complete access to all the things in their mind. So let’s see how easily they pair different concepts – faces that are black or white with concepts that are good or bad – and the ease with which people can associate faces that are black or white with good or bad things might be an indirect indicator of the types of associations that they have in their minds.”

The most interesting thing about this to me is the disconnect that the test reveals for most test-takers between what we think about ourselves and what we end up finding out that we don’t know about ourselves.

“We do, as you say, try to compare those – when is it that our conscious beliefs will be consistent with our automatic or our implicit responses, and when will they be different?” Nosek said.

“So for example what we will find is that most people will report unbiased feelings between blacks and whites – No, I like both black people and white people equally. But on the implicit measure, including myself, I show a prowhite bias – because it’s easier for me to put white faces with good things, and black faces with bad things, than the reverse, despite that conscious belief that I have that egalitarianism is a good thing, and we should treat people based on the content of their character rather than the color of their skin. Despite all of those conscious beliefs, I still have the mental residue of my cultural environment in my own mind that shapes the way that I think and is expressed in those different tests,” Nosek said.

Getting back to his own surprise at the results of the IAT that he took himself, Nosek said, “like any good scientist, I tried to unpack the test. What are the alternative explanations, besides the unsettling conclusion that it’s an association that really is in my mind, whether I like it or not. And so the last 12 years of research, my colleagues and I have been investigating what the basic factors are that influence this test performance, what are the extraneous or irrelevant influences that bias people’s responses, and then what’s actually there that we could say is actually a meaningful construct or meaningful reflection of the types of things that people have in their minds?”

“And it does have a fair bit of validity in that the type of associations that those things show is indicative of things like people’s nonverbal behavior in a social interaction – people who have high biases show more discomfort in interaction with blacks than with whites. Doctors who have strong biases are less likely to suggest a particular type of treatment for someone that needs it when they’re black compared to white – even though consciously these doctors are very fair-minded and want very much to be fair-minded,” Nosek said.

“That raises some important issues. What does this test really mean? What should we do about it? What do these types of associations indicate about ourselves? Our basic conclusion is that they are not telling us the true feelings – so when I tell you I am an egalitarian, that is a true statement. I am telling you, and I mean it in my heart of hearts, that I am an egalitarian. But at the same time, I can also recognize that I have biases. And I may not like those, I may not be able to control them all the time. I may not even be aware of them all the time. But they are inside of me.

“And so I have two selves – I have that self that strives to be fair and equal and egalitarian-minded, and I have the self that is the reflection of growing up in the culture that I grew up in. My mind is designed to accept all of these associations, to see links in whatever cultural experience that I have, whatever media experience that I have. And those get coded in my mind, whether I like it or not. And they are part of me,” Nosek said.

Chris Graham is the executive editor of The Augusta Free Press.

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