Implicit Bias and the Harvard Implicit Association Test

… a core term in Governance and Institutions and Atlas100

Click to do the Harvard IAT

Concept description

Michael Brownstein, writing in the Stanford Encylopedia of Philosophy (reference below), says:

“Implicit bias is a term of art referring to relatively unconscious and relatively automatic features of prejudiced judgment and social behavior. While psychologists in the field of “implicit social cognition” study “implicit attitudes” toward consumer products, self-esteem, food, alcohol, political values, and more, the most striking and well-known research has focused on implicit attitudes toward members of socially stigmatized groups, such as African-Americans, women, and the LGBTQ community. For example, imagine Frank, who explicitly believes that women and men are equally suited for careers outside the home. Despite his explicitly egalitarian belief, Frank might nevertheless implicitly associate women with the home, and this implicit association might lead him to behave in any number of biased ways, from trusting feedback from female co-workers less to hiring equally qualified men over women. Psychological research on implicit bias is relatively recent (§1), but a host of metaphysical (§2), epistemological (§3), and ethical questions (§4) about implicit bias are pressing.”

Project Implicit and the Harvard Implicit Association Test

The Project Implicit website (reference below, test link to the upper right) states:

“Project Implicit is a non-profit organization and international collaboration between researchers who are interested in implicit social cognition – thoughts and feelings outside of conscious awareness and control. The goal of the organization is to educate the public about hidden biases and to provide a “virtual laboratory” for collecting data on the Internet.

Project Implicit was founded in 1998 by three scientists – Tony Greenwald (University of Washington), Mahzarin Banaji (Harvard University), and Brian Nosek (University of Virginia). Project Implicit Mental Health launched in 2011, led by Bethany Teachman and Matt Nock. Project Implicit also provides consulting, education, and training services on implicit bias, diversity and inclusion, leadership, applying science to practice, and innovation.”

Many organizations recommend that members of selection committees take the Harvard Implicit Association Test to help them recognize their own implicit biases in order to take account of them in the process of selecting candidates. See, for example, the Gender Equity Guidelines for Department of Medicine Search Committees at Affirmative Action.

Criticism of the IAT

There have been a number of recent articles questioning the validity of the IAT as a tool for changing behaviour. For example, Jesse Singal, writing in New York Magazine’s Science of US (reference below) says:

“Maybe the biggest driver of the IAT’s popularity and visibility, though, is the fact that anyone can take the test on the Project Implicit website, which launched shortly after the test was unveiled and which is hosted by Harvard University. The test’s architects reported that, by October 2015, more than 17 million individual test sessions had been completed on the website. As will become clear, learning one’s IAT results is, for many people, a very big deal that changes how they view themselves and their place in the world.

“Given all this excitement, it might feel safe to assume that the IAT really does measure people’s propensity to commit real-world acts of implicit bias against marginalized groups, and that it does so in a dependable, clearly understood way. After all, the test is hosted by Harvard, endorsed and frequently written about by some of the top social psychologists and science journalists in the country, and is currently seen by many as the most sophisticated way to talk about the complicated, fraught subject of race in America.

“Unfortunately, none of that is true. A pile of scholarly work, some of it published in top psychology journals and most of it ignored by the media, suggests that the IAT falls far short of the quality-control standards normally expected of psychological instruments. The IAT, this research suggests, is a noisy, unreliable measure that correlates far too weakly with any real-world outcomes to be used to predict individuals’ behavior – even the test’s creators have now admitted as such. The history of the test suggests it was released to the public and excitedly publicized long before it had been fully validated in the rigorous, careful way normally demanded by the field of psychology. In fact, there’s a case to be made that Harvard shouldn’t be administering the test in its current form, in light of its shortcomings and its potential to mislead people about their own biases. There’s also a case to be made that the IAT went viral not for solid scientific reasons, but simply because it tells us such a simple, pat story about how racism works and can be fixed: that deep down, we’re all a little – or a lot – racist, and that if we measure and study this individual-level racism enough, progress toward equality will ensue.”

Atlas topic, subject, and course

Diversity, Identity, and Rights (core topic) in Governance and Institutions and Atlas100 Governance and Institutions.


Michael Brownstein, Implicit Bias, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2016 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), at, accessed 29 December 2016.

Project Implicit, About Us, at, accessed 29 December 2016.

Jesse Singal, Psychology’s Favorite Tool for Measuring Racism Isn’t Up to the Job, New York Magazine’s Science of US, 11 January 2017, at, accessed 16 January 2017.

Page created by: Ian Clark, last modified on 16 January 2017.

Image: Project Implicit, at, accessed 29 December 2016.