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Test on new websites allows people to gauge their unconscious prejudices

Card-carrying members of The Age of Aquarius, who are prepared to swear on a stack of love beads that -- unlike an estimated 90 to 95 percent of the population -- they are not harboring any prejudices can test the reality of that claim on websites featuring a new psychological tool designed to help people measure the unconscious roots of prejudice.

The tool -- called the Implicit Association Test -- was created by University of Washington psychology professor Anthony Greenwald, who is working with Yale psychology professor Mahzarin Banaji to further develop the test. The test is available on two websites that were recently launched by University of Washington at the following addresses: http://www.yale.edu/implicit/ and http://depts.washington.edu/iat/.

The Implicit Association Test allows people all over the world to measure their unconscious levels of race and age prejudice, gender stereotyping and self-esteem.

The test has the potential to reveal things about people that they may prefer not to know, explain the researchers, who developed it with funding from the National Science Foundation and National Institute of Mental Health.

The test can be administered individually using a computer or to a group using a slide projector, just as it was administered by Banaji recently to more than 1,000 Yale freshmen who were attending their first college lecture. The research tool measures implicit or unconscious evaluations and beliefs that spring from strong, automatic associations of which people may be unaware, Banaji explains.

"An important example is automatic race preference. A person may not be aware of automatic negative reactions to a racial group and may even regard such negative feelings as objectionable when expressed by others," Banaji says. "Many people who regard themselves as nonprejudiced nevertheless possess these automatic negative feelings."

In experiments and demonstrations, the test has been used to show the unconscious roots of prejudice toward a variety of racial, ethnic and religious groups, as well as to illuminate automatic gender and age discrimination. Among other tests, it has been used to demonstrate automatic components of attitudes of whites towards blacks, Germans toward Turks, Poles toward Germans, Australians toward aboriginals, and young people toward elderly individuals.

At a recent news conference, Greenwald and Banaji used the test to demonstrate the prevalence and strength of Americans' automatic racial preference for white over black. Participants in the demonstration were first asked to rapidly classify (by tapping their left or right knee) each of a list of names (shown on a projector screen) into those that are most commonly associated with black people (such as Malik and Lashonda) and those that are most commonly associated with whites (such as Tiffany and Peter). Next they were asked to rapidly classify each of a list of words as pleasant in meaning (such as love and baby) or unpleasant (such as war and vomit).

In the crucial next step, participants classified a randomly ordered list that included all of the "black" names, "white" names, pleasant words and unpleasant words. First they were asked to tap their left knee for any "black" name or unpleasant word and their right knee for any "white" name or pleasant word. Then the instructions were changed: Participants were asked to tap their left knee for "white" names or unpleasant words and their right knee for "black" names or pleasant words.

Remarkably, it took individuals about twice as long to respond to the second task, even though objectively the tasks were of equal difficulty.

The greater difficulty of giving the same response to black names and pleasant words provides a measure of automatic preference for the white names, Banaji explains. This effect -- the speed difference between the two tasks -- is so large that University of British Columbia psychology professor Eric Eich, a participant at an earlier demonstration, described it as "measurable with a sundial."

Banaji and Greenwald think unconscious prejudice may occur despite people's wishes and results from the culture they live in and the culture's attitudes towards stigmatized groups. "A culture leaves an imprint on the mental structure, and most people have more or less the same mental imprint," Greenwald says.

While Banaji and Greenwald admit being surprised and troubled by their own test results, they believe the test ultimately can have a positive effect, despite its initial negative impact. "The same test that reveals these roots of prejudice has the potential to let people learn more about and perhaps overcome these disturbing inclinations," Banaji says.