* * *
GREENWALD: At various points in my career I have worked on some very interesting questions, such as: How is voluntary action controlled? What is the self? How does the mind function unconsciously? On that last one, I surprised myself by discovering that visual stimuli, flashed so briefly as to remain consciously unseen, can influence behavior. In starting this research I had no idea that was true. In doing the research, I found that we can learn new things by creating new methods. I had created new methods for studying subliminal perception, and shortly after than Mahzarin and I started working on developing methods to investigate things going on outside of awareness that could influence social behavior.
We were very influenced by cognitive psychologists’ work on implicit cognition—which is the label for knowledge expressed implicitly in behavior even when the person performing the behavior was unaware of having the knowledge. We were looking for ways to study the implicit aspects of social behavior. An important moment came in 1995, when we performed an experiment that we had conceived a few years earlier and written into one brief paragraph of a proposal to the National Science Foundation.
In that experiment subjects gave a response on a computer keyboard with the index finger of the right hand to words that named pleasant things and to names of flowers. With left hand they were to respond to another two categories—words that named unpleasant things and insect names. This was a very easy task. Then we made one minor change: We switched hands for the flower and insect names. Now subjects had to give the same response to pleasant words and insect names and a different response to unpleasant words and flower names. Immediately the task became hugely difficult. The slowing on a response-by-response basis was on the order of 300 milliseconds, which was a magnitude of impact nobody could have expected. We certainly did not expect it.
I was the first subject in this experiment. When I experienced this slowing I found to my surprise that I could not overcome it—repeating the task did not make me faster. If I tried to go faster, I just started making errors when I was trying to give the same response to flower names and unpleasant words. This was a mind-opener.
About a month later, I modified the task by replacing the flowers and insects with the names of famous White and Black people. My thought was, if this works for flowers and insects, maybe we could use the same task to measure something that we had not yet begun to call implicit race attitudes. To my dismay, but also with some excitement, I discovered that the names of famous Black people were functioning much like the names of insects. I had a difficult time responding rapidly when I had to give the same response to famous Black people and to pleasant words. Shortly thereafter, I persuaded Mahzarin to start using this task in her lab at Yale. One of the students whom she brought along on this work was [Situationist contributor] Brian Nosek, who ever since has been a very important collaborator in this research.
BANAJI: What is remarkable about this test, which is called the Implicit Association Test—the IAT—is that it allows you to be a subject in your own experiment. Most scientists do not have the remarkable experience of being the object of study in their own research.
If you are a physicist, you cannot be the material object that you are studying. If you are a psychologist, you cannot be the subject because you know the hypothesis. But when you study the unconscious aspects of the mind, you can! You can have the experience of having your hand NOT do what your mind is willing it to do. That may be part of the appeal of the test.
How does the test work? Well, I intend to associate white with good as quickly as I associate black with good—that is my conscious goal—but I fail to do that. [See brief video above for quick summary of how IAT works.] It has to be fascinating to anybody to discover that they cannot do something simple that they will themselves to do. When we failed our own tests, we decided that this was of course for the scientific journals, but also for wider access. When in 1998 we decided that this was probably worth sharing with a wider audience than our own students, we asked, What would Galileo do, and we put it on the web.
We were stunned that within the first month with no advertising on our part, just media coverage — we had 40,000 completed tests. We had clearly struck a chord or a nerve (depending on the participant’s response!).
The test is unusual in that it provokes a reaction of surprise, even astonishment. It is both a tool to understand what goes on invisibly in our minds but it is also a catalyst for insight. And once it has suggested to us and we may contain the views of multitudes, we can ask “Am I leading my life the way I want to?” It is a unique test in that regard.