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    Tuesday, January 31, 2006

    The Bias Test

    Jay Dixit argues for bias tests for jurors:

    ... In 2003, Mahzarin Banaji, Anthony G. Greenwald, and Brian Nosek published a paper detailing an experimental methodology they had developed called the Implicit Association Test, or IAT. Rather than asking subjects what they thought about different races (or what they thought they thought), Banaji and her colleagues decided to time them as they paired words and images.

    How do you test internal bias? You can try asking people, but since most of us don't like to think of ourselves as biased, we won't necessarily admit to it on a questionnaire, even anonymously. But there's a test to detect the kind of bias people won't admit to and may not even be aware of themselves—a test that works. The psychologists who devised it, however, are squeamish about real-world uses of it. They shouldn't be. Though it shouldn't be used as the basis for hiring decisions, the test has its place.

    In 2003, Mahzarin Banaji, Anthony G. Greenwald, and Brian Nosek published a paper detailing an experimental methodology they had developed called the Implicit Association Test, or IAT. Rather than asking subjects what they thought about different races (or what they thought they thought), Banaji and her colleagues decided to time them as they paired words and images.

    In the test's most popular version, the Race IAT, subjects are shown a computer screen and asked to match positive words (love, wonderful, peace) or negative words (evil, horrible, failure) with faces of African-Americans or whites. Their responses are timed. If you tend to associate African-Americans with "bad" concepts, it will take you longer to group black faces with "good" concepts because you perceive them as incompatible. If you're consistently quicker at connecting positive words with whites and slower at connecting positive words with blacks—or quicker at connecting negative words with blacks and slower at connecting negative words with whites—you have an implicit bias for white faces over those of African-Americans. In other words, the time it takes you to pair the faces and words yields an empirical measure of your attitudes. ...

    The IAT, then, is an objective measure of bias. And research has shown that the test is powerfully predictive of behavior—as Banaji notes in refuting critics' claims that the test measures not individual bias but awareness of bias within society. People with high racial bias scores are more likely to choose a white partner to work with and more willing to cut funding for minority student groups. They're also more likely to judge minority suspects guilty in ambiguous situations and assign longer prison sentences to suspects with minority names.

    Yet the test's creators are extremely wary about unleashing the powerful tool they've created. Banaji has threatened to testify in court against efforts to use her test in real-world situations. Using the test to ferret out biased people, she argues, assumes that people who have high implicit bias scores will always behave in a biased way—which is not the case, since the tests don't predict behavior with 100 percent accuracy. Banaji also points out that some highly motivated subjects may be able to beat the test by focusing on "counter-stereotypes," for instance, by thinking about black heroes like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela just before taking the test.

    Banaji is right: The test isn't a perfect predictor, and it may be possible to beat it. Those are good reasons to limit the test's uses. But they don't justify never using it at all.

    Consider juries. Since studies show that people with high bias scores judge minorities guiltier than whites, people who test as highly biased against minorities shouldn't serve on juries in cases involving minority defendants. It's standard for judges to strike prospective jurors who exhibit clear prejudice against a defendant; at the federal corruption trial of former Atlanta Mayor Bill Campbell, one prospective juror was recently dismissed for writing in the questionnaire that he thought Campbell, who is African-American, should be "hung from the highest tree." Other jurors, however, don't volunteer their bias on questionnaires. Banaji's test would tell us who they are. Sure, not everyone who tests high for bias will actually judge the case before them in a biased way. But given the high stakes for the defendant—and the relatively low ones for a prospective juror—isn't it better to err on the side of keeping biased people out of the jury box? ...


    I was fortunate to take this test (the sexuality version) a few years ago and I never got my scores, but it was cool to be part of the research. You can take it too, in many versions here.

    Now, it's hard. It's not easy to do these kind of hand-eye things quickly. But it's interesting. I took one just for a fun a minute ago:

    You have completed the Family - Career IAT.
    The line immediately below summarizes the results of your task performance.

    Your data suggest a moderate association of Male with Career and Female with Family compared to Female with Career and Male with Family.


    I'm sexist.

    Dabny over at The Real Eve asks the next question:

    If everyone is biased, what do you do?

    I wouldn't object to it being used for juries if that was all it was used for. But I kind of think it would be hard to ever know whether or not this test was accurate. It seems like the kind of thing that could also be very much how you feel and think in the moment. If you've just spent the day working with your super-annoying white coworker, you may be down on whites when you take the test. It also seems like it might have something to do with how exposed you are to the media. For example, if you are the kind of person who watches a ton of television news magazine shows, you'd probably associate black men with "criminal" and with "articulate". Not to mention the complicated questions around language and what certain words are likely to connote out of context like that.

    In other words, I don't know whether I "believe" the results of the test (although I'm not surprised by mine, sadly), but I think that Dixit is right- if someone doesn't end up on a jury because they might be racist, that wouldn't be a bad thing. We have to do something to protect the accused, particularly when the accused are racial minorities that are likely to experience jurors' prejudice as jail time.

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