What are Mental Health Automatic Associations?

Although the IAT and related implicit measures were developed for research use, they have clear potential for application outside the laboratory. Our goal, in developing this website, is to investigate associations about various mental health issues. The IAT may be especially interesting if you find that it reveals an automatic association that you could not control. For example, you may consciously believe that mentally ill people are not more dangerous than other people – yet, your automatic associations may show that you (like many others) associate mental illness with dangerousness.

How might you use experiences with these various tests to think about the implications of thoughts and feelings related to mental illness that are outside conscious control? We can tell you about the types of questions some individuals might consider after taking the treatment seeking IAT: "What does it mean that we show an automatic association between therapy and unhelpful? What is the source of such knowledge? Will we fail to benefit from treatment?"(Such questions are addressed further in the answers to Frequently Asked Questions.)

We urge caution in using the IAT to reach conclusions about yourself or others. You might wonder, for example, if this test can be used to make concrete decisions about yourself (e.g., will medication be helpful for me, should I be ashamed of eating fattening foods, etc.). If you show a greater association between mentally ill people and dangerous, does it mean that you should avoid people who are mentally ill because they might harm you? Our opinion is: Most definitely not! This test result might instead prompt you to take note of the broad reach of stereotypes related to mental illness, and to ask yourself what it means to suffer from mental illness in a society in which so many people automatically associate mentally ill people with dangerous.

Along similar lines, if you show a greater association between the self and being anxious (versus being calm), does it mean you have an anxiety disorder and should seek treatment? No it does not. Rather, this test result might encourage you to examine how frequently and how intensely you experience anxiety. If these negative emotions are reducing your quality of life and getting in the way of accomplishing your goals, then the associations may be a good signal that seeking help for anxiety problems would be beneficial. If, however, the associations reflect a temporarily stressful time, or do not reflect your typical feelings, then they may just serve as a good reminder to take care of yourself by incorporating relaxation and pleasurable activities into your life.

Either way, we want to stress that the IAT does not provide a diagnosis of mental illness, and it should not be used to determine one’s ‘true’ attitudes or feelings. Moreover, the results that you receive are not static, but can vary depending on a variety of factors. If you take the anxiety test while studying for a particularly stressful exam, for instance, it may be more likely that you will display associations between self and anxious than if you take the same test while relaxing on a beach.

Regardless, you may find some of your IAT results distressing. For example, your results may indicate that you display an association between the self and being sad or an association with alcohol as uncontrollable. Does this mean that you will always have these associations? You’ve probably guessed our answer by now: Absolutely not. In fact, following treatment, initial evidence suggests that many of these associations are likely to change. Thus, if you believe that your automatic associations reflect an issue that has been particularly challenging and that you would like to address, there are many resources available (please visit our mental health links for information about mental illness and treatment options).

Finally, can (or should) people use this test to make decisions about others? Can a clinician, for example, use this test to diagnose someone with a mental illness? We assert that the IAT should not be used this way. Especially at this stage of the IAT’s development, it is much preferable to use the test to develop awareness of one’s own and others’ automatic preferences and beliefs. Using the IAT as the sole basis for making significant decisions about the self or others could lead to undesired and unjustified consequences.

We hope you have been able to take something of value from the experience of taking one or more of these tests. We will periodically revise the IATs that you can sample at this site. We will also continue to update the information that the site provides on developments in psychological understanding of the uncontrollable or automatic roots of thought and feeling, and their implications for mental illness.

Finally, if you want to stay involved in the latest research on implicit associations, complete the simple registration at the research site and participate in current research on implicit processes.

Background and FAQs Main Page