The official site of bestselling author Michael Shermer The official site of bestselling author Michael Shermer

Are We All Racists?

published August 2017

Private thoughts and public acts

Scientific American (cover)

Novelists often offer deep insights into the human psyche that take psychologists years to test. In his 1864 Notes from Underground, for example, Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky observed: “Every man has reminiscences which he would not tell to everyone, but only to his friends. He has other matters in his mind which he would not reveal even to his friends, but only to himself, and that in secret. But there are other things which a man is afraid to tell even to himself, and every decent man has a number of such things stored away in his mind.”

Intuitively, the observation rings true, but is it true experimentally? Twenty years ago social psychologists Anthony Greenwald, Mahzarin Banaji and Brian Nosek developed an instrument called the Implicit Association Test (IAT) that, they claimed, can read the innermost thoughts that you are afraid to tell even yourself. And those thoughts appear to be dark and prejudiced: we favor white over black, young over old, thin over fat, straight over gay, able over disabled, and more.

I took the test myself, as can you (Google “Project Implicit”). The race task first asks you to separate black and white faces into one of two categories: White people and Black people. Simple. Next you are asked to sort a list of words (joy, terrible, love, agony, peace, horrible, wonderful, nasty, and so on) into either Good or Bad buckets. Easy. Then the words and the black and white faces appear on the screen one at a time for you to sort into either Black people/Good or White people/Bad. The word “joy,” for example, would go into the first category, whereas a white face would go into the second category. This sorting becomes noticeably slower. Finally, you are tasked with sorting the words and faces into the categories White people/Good or Black people/Bad. Distressingly, I was much quicker to associate words like joy, love and pleasure with White people/Good than I was with Black people/Good.

The test’s assessment of me was not heartening: “Your data suggest a strong automatic preference for White people over Black people. Your result is described as ‘automatic preference for Black people over White people’ if you were faster responding when Black people and Good are assigned to the same response key than when White people and Good were classified with the same key. Your score is described as an ‘automatic preference for White people over Black people’ if the opposite occurred.” Does this mean I’m a closeted racist? And because most people, including African-Americans, score similarly to me on the IAT, does this mean we are all racists? The Project Implicit website suggests that it does: “Implicit biases can predict behavior. If we want to treat people in a way that reflects our values, then it is critical to be mindful of hidden biases that may influence our actions.”

I’m skeptical. First, unconscious states of mind are notoriously difficult to discern and require subtle experimental protocols to elicit. Second, associations between words and categories may simply be measuring familiar cultural or linguistic affiliations— associating “blue” and “sky” faster than “blue” and “doughnuts” does not mean I unconsciously harbor a pastry prejudice. Third, negative words have more emotional salience than positive words, so the IAT may be tapping into the negativity bias instead of prejudice. Fourth, IAT researchers have been unable to produce any interventions that can reduce the alleged prejudicial associations. A preprint of a 2016 meta-analysis by psychologist Patrick Forscher and his colleagues, made available on the Open Science Framework, examined 426 studies on 72,063 subjects and “found little evidence that changes in implicit bias mediate changes in explicit bias or behavior.” Fifth, the IAT does not predict prejudicial behavior. A 2013 meta-analysis by psychologist Frederick Oswald and his associates in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology concluded that “the IAT provides little insight into who will discriminate against whom.”

For centuries the arc of the moral universe has been bending toward justice as a result of changing people’s explicit behaviors and beliefs, not on ferreting out implicit prejudicial witches through the spectral evidence of unconscious associations. Although bias and prejudice still exist, they are not remotely as bad as a mere half a century ago, much less half a millennium ago. We ought to acknowledge such progress and put our energies into figuring out what we have been doing right and do more of it.

topics in this column: , , ,

21 Comments to “Are We All Racists?”

  1. brad tittle Says:

    The problem with this discussion is that it fails the basic science concept. Falsifiability. The best a test like this can do is detect the non existence of the bias. We aren’t attempting to prove that the bias exists, we are attempting to find all the non biases and see what is left.

    We stand on the rubble of the failures of the great scientists. This is why we can see so far. It is not because of the proofs they have shown us, it is because of the mound of what is not they did show.

    Expressing that pile is not easy. It is much easier to say “we have proven that x is because of y” than to say “we know that x is not because of a, b, c, d, e, f, g, h, i, j, k, …”

    Most people fell asleep at “not”.

  2. J. Gravelle Says:

    “Distressingly, I was much quicker to associate words like joy, love and pleasure with White people/Good than I was with Black people/Good…”

    …quite possibly because, by then, you’d become practiced with the interface and more physically adept at responding.

    I might prefer to rule out the influences of muscle memory before branding you a closeted racist…

  3. Tom Halla Says:

    I do have prejudices about people, but they are mostly as to how someone presents themselves. If someone chooses to look like a gangbanger of whatever ethnic backround, my reaction will be negative. Or if someone is “making a statement” with their dress and grooming. Otherwise, it is more of perceived/presented social class more than race, which is more dress and grooming than anything else to evoke prejudices.

  4. Nony Lab Says:

    Bias was embedded into our psychic by the church during the medieval era and even to the present by attaching the color black to the devil (which they created) and the color white to god (which they also created). I only wish that secular writings, be it books, magazines, posters be made available and accessible to the general public, to the brainwashed believers most especially.

  5. George Hahn Says:

    We are preprogrammed by our biology to be wary of anything (or anyone) different than ourselves. It is my belief that when our ancestors achieved self-awareness, i.e., consciousness, they gained the ability to override this programming and think more rationally. For more of my thoughts on this, I have a blog entry on the subject:

  6. William Cutler Says:

    I don’t doubt that I have unconscious prejudices. So what? Who doesn’t?

    I fancy myself to be a conscious, thinking, responsible person capable of making mature choices, one of which is to override my unconscious prejudices because, based on my personal system of justice and virtue, it’s the right way to behave. That doesn’t mean I invariably succeed. I frequently catch myself messing up, sometimes in embarrassing ways. For instance, I’m guilty of getting a laugh out of un-PC jokes. But that’s life so I make a correction and carry on.

  7. Brent Meeker Says:

    I’d like to see some controls. How do people who are explicitly racist do on the test? How do people who live in black cultures (Nigeria, Botswana,…) do?

  8. Justin Says:

    Yeah, as suspected, I had actually ended up associating good with European slightly. Is it because I’m a racist guy of European descent? No, it’s because it’s automatic that people perceive things like themselves as positive or better. It’s not like this is news to anyone, it’s been well known for decades now. But it has never once resulted in me acting differently towards anyone, which is the failure of this. There is no way to “fix” this, nor should it be believed this needs to be fixed. The issue for me is that there is legitimate hate mongers in the world. They are not biased in any different way than myself (at least not likely to be anyway), but they are making conscious decisions to see the world as they do at that point. Sometimes it’s due to ignorance. As hard as it is to believe, there are people out there who have literally not met anyone like them.

  9. Bob Pease Says:

    The “test” is a test of belief in the validity of a deeply flawed premise.
    The premise of the test is roughly
    ” everyone will assign a trait preferentially to on “race ” or the other ”
    This excludes the possibility of ” equally to both”
    The designers of the test were obviously aware of this. but must have thought this
    but must have thought that this would no be an insignificantly low number of people

  10. Dan Says:

    I think a lot of readers here (and elsewhere) of this study and its recent resurgence of attention are missing two very key points.

    Just one example (not calling out Justin specifically): ” No, it’s because it’s automatic that people perceive things like themselves as positive or better. ”

    The implicit bias test shows that black people are racist against *black* people, also more quickly associating white with good.

    The second point, which the authors seem to be making, is not that people are going to act on these internal biases, and not that the authors believe people are necessarily doing racist things.

    The message I take from articles and interviews with the original authors is this: We should be aware that we all probably have subtle biases that we may not be conscious of. And those biases can have a subtle effect on our perceptions, worldviews, and knee-jerk responses. So we should try to be aware of them and their possible effects, so we can consciously counteract them.

  11. John Beck Says:

    I am a scientist and science educator – I have spent most of my research career on the side of testing theory with observation. One of my pet peeves is neglecting the importance of data _interpretation_. Often it takes far, far longer to analyze and interpret the data than it took to collect the data.

    So, I accept the data from these tests as reliable but I have no confidence in the interpretation that these tests show that everyone is racist (BTW: what does ‘racist’ even mean? It has been redefined for so many specific purposes that it’s meaningless).

    When they can justify their interpretation of the data with something solid (and perhaps construct a test of that interpretation) then I will put stock in it.

    Let me leave you with this story of data analysis: during WWII the USAAF decided to analyze where planes get hit with an eye to making aircraft more resilient. They found returning planes had a greater number of bullet holes (per unit area) on the rudder, wings and aft fuselage than other areas. So they reinforced the other areas (e.g. the fore fuselage, cockpit and the elevators).
    Their line of reasoning was this: in a dog fight, all surfaces of an aircraft have roughly equal probability of being hit. The planes damaged in some areas made it back more often than those with damage to _other_ areas. Plus, an understanding of aircraft tells us that it’s particularly bad to damage the engine, pilot or elevator.

    When the social scientists can demonstrate why slowing down and speeding up classification of words & faces is caused by racism (and only by racism) then it will be interesting.

  12. farth Says:

    Shermer says to look at what we’re doing right and do more of it to fix racism. But I am not sure what’ve done right.

    School integration failed
    Housing integration failed
    Employment equality failed
    Income equality failed

    Exactly what big social programs are working?

    And as far as I AT provides little insight love to know the ‘Who’ individuals no maybe but groups yes. People who call themselves white disriminate against black now who among the whites you don’t know . Chinese against the Japanese same thing.

    And as a skeptic I wished Shermer gone into the science of testing this.

    For example do KKK members show more preducial behavior i.e. faster sorting than other people that call themselves white.

    Do African Hutus show faster sorting of Tutis?
    Do Chinese show faster sorting of Japanese?

  13. mike wax Says:

    you’ve got a very frustrating ambiguity. “most people, including African-Americans, score similarly to me on the IAT” what does that mean? Black people got the EXACT same result that you did, or black people got the RELATIVE same result that you did?
    it’s a pretty important point.

  14. Barbara Harwood Says:

    Prejudice, whether according to race, religion or nationality is brought about by two important factors: what you are told and what you experience. The former occurs in childhood and may be in the form of warnings by parents or sly suggestions incorporated into your education. The latter may be an unfortunate incident that may cloud your perception, despite the fact that one person does not represent an entire group.
    It can help to read books or watch movies in which the protagonist is of a different race or nationality. You may not be able to fit within his skin, but you can at least see the world through his eyes,.

  15. Ben Says:

    Color me skeptical as well.
    I noted that the order in which the test is given does not change, and that as the test progressed I got better at hitting the right button to go with my choice.
    ANY link being tested would therefore show a bias towards the associations being tested in the later phases.
    Sure enough, guess which one they “discovered”?
    I am with those who would like to see controls, but I would add that controls should include the order in which test is presented, as well as utterly neutral associations (birds and shapes, for example) being tested in various orders. If I’m right, I can rig the test to show a bias towards “birds are associated with triangles” by making sure that the bird-triangle same key correlation is tested last.

  16. Adam Says:

    Another possibility is that because the test is supposed to be testing racial bias that when it comes to assigning anything to the “black” or “bad” category most people may do a mental double check before sorting. This test may, @ best, really just test how aware the subject is of race, bias, & predjudice. Not how they feel about white or black people.

  17. Michael Lane Says:

    In no way does this test represent anything scientific. Pure garbage. Nothing more than associations of generic constructs supporting stereotypes. An example of the paradox of this age; more “information” than ever before with too few methods of critical analysis directed toward cohesive utilization. How many real world variables are there for the simplistic images used to represent objects and people? Not infinite but very significant to the point of skewing this vehicle off a cliff. Toonces driving? No thanks, I’ll take a cab and talk to the driver.

  18. BillG Says:

    I’m with Shermer, I smell BS. By interpreting data as such, have the authors only proved – on their part, confirmation “bias”?

    Also, I think it’s a perfect time to actually be a true “racist”. If everyone has biases/prejudices and every nuance has an unnecessary interpretation of such, then real racism gets water down because it has become overwhelmed from perhaps either worthless data or a media obsessed with the hue of one’s skin.

  19. Valkyrie Ziege Says:

    ; I’d like to see this test given to other races, in different parts of the world, and have the results published online for all to see. After all, there are more colours than “black-and-white”.

    Religions, commonly, have racial prejudices, and “us-versus-them” equivocations, written into their belief systems, i.e., The ancient equivalent of “Wild Man Fisher” writes down insane blatherings, he claims came from some “God”, and the people suck-it-up, without question.
    Until that fact is dealt with, correctly blamed, and eliminated, there will always be wars, and riots, conducted by “true believers”, convinced, in their minds, they’re “doing the work of the lord”.
    Why an all-powerful being, that created everything, needs puny humans to be their plantation slaves, and tin-soldiers, is another mystery to logic.

    If “The Rolling Stones”, a white group, had been prejudice against the “Hell’s Angels”, a white gang, then “Altamont” would’ve been a pleasant memory.

  20. Leigh Demrow Says:

    Go slow and ace it, go fast you racist.

  21. Dr. Strangelove Says:

    Shermer, you just can’t accept the experimental fact that you are implicitly a racist. Don’t worry it doesn’t make you a bad person. I have a scientific hypothesis to explain the biased results of IAT:
    White over black, young over old, thin over fat, straight over gay, able over disabled.

    It’s really very simple – evolutionary psychology. Humans are predisposed to reproduce and spread their genes. We all want sex. And our brains are prewired to select good sexual partners. Able people can reproduce better than disabled people. Relationships between straight men and women can produce babies, but not between gays or lesbians. Fat people indicate bad health and possibly difficulty in having babies. Old people are more likely to be infertile or impotent.

    White over black is perplexing as we expect black to choose black as sexual partner. But I think it has to do with the general preference for fair and smooth complexion. This indicates young, healthy and able to reproduce. Black complexion may be subconsciously associated with dirty, skin disease, old and unhealthy.

Leave a Comment