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What do unconscious bias tests really reveal about racism?

Psychologists have shown that reflexive biases influence our perceptions of others, potentially explaining the persistence of various forms of prejudice. But reliably measuring our implicit biases is trickier than it first appeared

Humans



26 August 2020

YOU are biased. So am I. We all discriminate. It is both a source of concern and comfort that we don’t necessarily do so deliberately and that our prejudices aren’t always wilful.

If societies are to truly confront the pernicious effects of racism and prejudice, the importance of examining these biases and how they become etched into the brain is becoming increasingly clear. The death of George Floyd under the knee of a police officer in Minneapolis on 25 May shook the world to attention, but it was no isolated incident. Every day there are stories of people being treated with suspicion – or far worse – based on their skin colour while going about their daily lives.

This is in spite of the fact that, for the past 40 years, opinion polls show a steady decline in racist views in the US, UK and other countries. That has led some researchers to suspect that, as explicit racism has been driven underground, unconscious bias is playing a critical role. This suspicion inspired the creation of the Implicit Association Test, a tool that aims to reveal unconscious biases with a few clicks of the mouse.

Unfortunately, the accuracy and reliability of this widely celebrated test isn’t what it once seemed. Pinning down the nature and extent of hidden bias is proving to be extraordinarily complicated. Eradicating it is far from straightforward, too – and it turns out that some efforts to do so may further entrench the very prejudices they are meant to uproot. But we are making progress, not least in understanding the processes in our brains that perpetuate …