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What Is the Implicit Association Test?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Kristen Osborne
  • Last Modified Date: 14 July 2014
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An implicit association test (IAT) is a measure available in social psychology to examine a person's unconscious associations and beliefs that can play a role in biases and prejudices. These associations can also have an impact on how people respond to marketing and answer questions about their lives. There are a number of forms of the implicit association test researchers can use to study various topics, ranging from race to car brands. People can take sample tests online if they want to learn more.

In an implicit association test, the subject has to match attributes to concepts. The researcher presents the subject with a series of images and words associated with different attributes, like happy and sad or good and bad. The test requires the subject to match specific attributes with particular kinds of images, pushing a button when the word matches the image. This test usually requires a computer, although a researcher can also flash cards or slides.

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In a simple example, a test might function to uncover racial biases. People are presented with pictures of faces representing different races, and they have a list of attributes to match with those faces. The test might ask participants to match good traits with white faces, for instance. If this is an easy match, the participant will respond quickly every time a white face and a good trait appear on screen. Conversely, if the participant does not unconsciously associate white faces with good traits, it would take longer to match various positive words with white faces and the person might make errors.

Researchers believe implicit associations can play an important role in how people interact with the world around them. People with a bias against members of the black community, for example, might be less likely to treat a black defendant favorably if they were seated on a jury. These traits are not the result of a conscious bias like overt racism and are the result of thinking on a subconscious level.

The implicit association test has some critics. People argue that the test actually measures socialization, familiarity, and learned behaviors even if people do not particularly endorse those beliefs, or exhibit them in their daily lives. For instance, an implicit association test may show a bias against older adults that is not borne out in the way the subject interacts with old people or talks about them. Some people also fear that implicit association test results may be misleading and could lead people to misinterpret the results of the test as confirming the presence of an overt and conscious bias, even though this is not the case.

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