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The ‘implicit bias’ craze continues to unravel

The concept of “implicit bias,” where individuals experience and act upon unconscious feelings of prejudice, has become a ubiquitous part of popular culture. But the basis for the theory of “implicit bias”—a test that purported to prove to people that they were unknowingly prejudiced toward certain groups—has recently had its validity called into serious question.

At The New Yorker earlier this year, Jesse Singal exposed the serious shortcomings and flaws with the Implicit Association Test, a testing mechanism created from professors from Harvard and the University of Washington. And again at The New Yorker last week, Singal offered up more evidence that the test does not deliver on its promises, citing a report from Olivia Goldhill at Quartz.

Goldhill notes that many “workplace implicit-bias programs” have relied upon a number of psychological studies and concepts, including that of “implicit bias.” Many have depended upon the Implicit Association Test, as well. “The latest scientific research,” Goldhill writes, suggests there’s a very good reason why these well-meaning workshops have been so utterly ineffectual:”

A 2017 meta-analysis that looked at 494 previous studies (currently under peer review and not yet published in a journal) from several researchers, including Nosek, found that reducing implicit bias did not affect behavior. “Our findings suggest that changes in measured implicit bias are possible, but those changes do not necessarily translate into changes in explicit bias or behavior,” wrote the psychologists.

“I was pretty shocked that the meta-analysis found so little evidence of a change in behavior that corresponded with a change in implicit bias,” Patrick Forscher, psychology professor at the University of Arkansas and one of the co-authors of the meta-analysis, wrote in an email.

Forscher, who started graduate school believing that reducing implicit bias was a strong way of changing behavior and conducted research on how to do so, is now convinced that approach is misguided. “I currently believe that many (but not all) psychologists, in their desire to help solve social problems, have been way too overconfident in their interpretation of the evidence that they gather. I count myself in that number,” he wrote. “The impulse is understandable, but in the end it can do some harm by contributing to wasteful, and maybe even harmful policy.”

As Singal notes of the Implicit Association Test:

The problem, as I showed in a lengthy rundown of the many, many problems with the test published this past January, is that there’s very little evidence to support that claim that the IAT meaningfully predicts anything. In fact, the test is riddled with statistical problems — problems severe enough that it’s fair to ask whether it is effectively “misdiagnosing” the millions of people who have taken it, the vast majority of whom are likely unaware of its very serious shortcomings. There’s now solid research published in a top journal strongly suggesting the test cannot even meaningfully predict individual behavior. And if the test can’t predict individual behavior, it’s unclear exactly what it does do or why it should be the center of so many conversations and programs geared at fighting racism.

Singal criticizes the creators of the IAT as practicing “derailing tactics,” shifting focus “from critiques of the IAT itself…to the ostensible moral and psychological failings of the critiquers.”

Read Signal’s piece here, and Goldhill’s piece here.

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