Reactions to Media Coverage of the IAT

By Jordan Axt

What are common reactions to reading about the Implicit Association Test (IAT) in the popular press? How might reactions to media stories about the IAT shape conceptions of implicit bias more generally? These questions were explored in a recent paper published in the British Journal of Social Psychology by Jeffrey Yen of the University of Guelph and colleagues.

The researchers were interested in people’s reactions to media discussions of the IAT. To do so, they analyzed approximately 500 reader comments to seven op-ed or science stories published in the New York Times between 2008 and 2010 that discussed the IAT. Unlike most research reviewed on this blog, these researchers completed a qualitative analysis in which they combed through reader comments in response to the articles and identified popular themes or reactions.

Among more skeptical readers, reactions were roughly split among two perspectives. The first conceived of implicit bias as an “academic distraction” that is not particularly informative given the existence of more tangible bias in the real world (for example, racial disparities in incarceration rates). The second critique focused on the IAT as being “ideologically biased”, viewing the measure as an attempt by predominantly liberal academics to preserve the notion that many people harbor prejudiced attitudes even when explicitly reporting a lack of preferences between races or other social groups.

At the same time, many readers viewed the IAT as a valid measure and wrestled with the implications for biased attitudes or behavior. Among these readers, reactions to the IAT were roughly split into three viewpoints. Some readers responded with personal reflection, thinking of life experiences that might have contributed to their IAT performance or implicit biases more generally. Others viewed the IAT as evidence of unintentional but widespread bias, arguing that such results should motivate wider efforts to reduce such biases. Finally, others viewed the IAT as proof that implicit biases are very difficult and perhaps impossible to eliminate.

The reactions of readers who comment on news articles, particularly in the New York Times, are unlikely to be a representative sample of people. Nevertheless, this work has interesting implications for how the public views the IAT and the notion of implicit or explicit bias more generally. Initial negative reactions to the idea may result in less willingness to complete an IAT or partake in interventions that might lessen the impact of implicit biases. Alternatively, people who place too much faith in the IAT as the primary measure of bias may overlook the extent to which biased behavior can come from more conscious and deliberate motivations to favor some types of people over others.

Interested readers can find our responses to some of these issues in our Frequently Asked Questions page. A more academic perspective on the implications of the IAT and implicit bias can be found in this 2004 paper, as well as this more recent 2015 paper.