It's black and white - simple test tells you if you're racist

By Jason Murphy

A simple Harvard test looks at whether you find it easier to associate white people with good things or black people with good things. Photo / Getty Images
A simple Harvard test looks at whether you find it easier to associate white people with good things or black people with good things. Photo / Getty Images

Have you ever wondered if you might be secretly racist? Researchers at America's Harvard University have and they've created a simple test for it.

It is called an implicit association test, and it measures whether your brain associates good things more with one sort of person than another. It is supposed to reveal whether we subconsciously harbour beliefs about certain types of people.

The test relies on measuring your reaction times. It pairs concepts, like white and good, or black and good, and asks you to sort them together.

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If it takes you less time to sort white with good than it does for you to sort black with good, it is supposed to reveal an implicit association of goodness with white faces.

Most of us have a bias and no matter how hard you try to beat the test, the truth about your subconscious will be revealed.

Plenty of people even demonstrate bias against their own racial group.

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The test can be found here. It can be done for male vs. female; old vs. young; Indigenous Australian vs. white Australian; and a range of other options.

IT'S NOT JUST LAWN BOWLS THAT ARE BIASED
The idea of subconscious bias is powerful. For example, do employers have subconscious bias against women?

The question of whether someone can play an instrument well is very subjective - subconscious bias could easily creep in. So in the 1970s and 1980s, most orchestras decided to do their hiring anonymously. The hopeful violinist would sit behind a screen to bash out their part of the symphony, while the panel would judge only with their ears.

Surprise, surprise, unable to see who was playing, they started hiring a lot more women.

The share of women in orchestras before that was five per cent, 30 years later this had risen to 25 per cent, partly explained by the new hiring practices that hid bias.

Even when the applicant is not there in person, discrimination can happen. A 2011 study into discrimination quotes a woman from Sydney who was called Ragda Ali.

"After completing TAFE in 2005 I applied for many junior positions where no experience in sales was needed - even though I had worked for two years as a junior sales clerk. I didn't receive any calls so I decided to legally change my name to Gabriella Hannah. I applied for the same jobs and got a call 30 minutes later."

That study found Australian employers were likely to discriminate against people with Chinese or middle eastern names, compared to Anglo names, but not against people with Italian names.

It's not just Australia. A Canadian study found people with English-sounding names were a lot more likely to be called back for a job interview and now that country is talking about making a rule that names should be omitted from CVs, to prevent subconscious bias tricking people into hiring only one sort of person.

Subconscious bias could even explain why indigenous people convicted of a crime are more likely to end up in jail.

HOW TO STRAIGHTEN UP
The people who administer the test say that with "active efforts" a person with subconscious bias can act in a non-prejudiced fashion. That's probably a good idea if you are a judge or if you are working in human resources. But do you need to spend your whole life actively watching out for your subconscious?

Maybe, maybe not. A few academics think the tests are bunkum. In April this year two researchers from Scandinavia argued there is "little evidence that the IAT can meaningfully predict discrimination, and we thus strongly caution against any practical applications of the IAT that rest on this assumption."

They are in a minority, but it's worth remembering that the whole field of psychology is being up-ended at the moment by a crisis of replication, where they are learning that many famous "discoveries" are probably not actually true.

For now, it's probably best for you to do your own research - have a go at the test, and watch to see if your behaviour matches up to your implicit association scores.

- news.com.au

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