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You Are Such a Racist

by Brian Dunning, Feb 14 2013

stroopMost of us are familiar with the Stroop Test. The subject is shown a series of words, each of which is written in a different color. The only task is to say what color the word is. What’s so hard about that? Well, nothing; it would be easy, except that each word is the name of a color, and usually different from the color in which it’s written. You can try it online here, and see how surprisingly difficult it is. Believe it or not, a similar test can reveal your hidden racial biases.

The Stroop effect exists because it pits your conscious analytical skills against your native perceptions. By native perception, you see this image immediately as RED. But you are forced to use your conscious intellect to figure out the correct answer, BLUE. It’s very hard not to let the automatic impulse take over.

A related effect is laid embarrassingly bare by Harvard’s Implicit Association Test (try it for free here). IAT tests reveal many demographic biases, such as attitudes toward age, disability, race, sexuality, weight, etc. The one that I took involved racial biases. This particular IAT presents you with 24 items:

  • 4 white people (each with a white-sounding name)
  • 4 black people (each with a black-sounding name)
  • 4 Asian people (each with an Asian-sounding name)
  • 4 Hispanic people (each with a Hispanic-sounding name)
  • 4 positive words (love, pleasant, great, wonderful)
  • 4 negative words (hate, unpleasant, awful, terrible)

blackEach round of the test uses one of the four races as the target. There are two keys on your keyboard: one to use for positive words or the target race, and the other to use for negative words or any other race. The test randomly flashes either a word or a face and name (cropped so as not to show clothes, hairstyle, or other cues) on screen, and you press either the “positive” or “negative” button. If you push the wrong button, it tells you, and you can then push the right one, merely adding on to your reaction time.

It’s mainly about conscious intellect: identify the race or the type of word, and push the correct key. But your native impulse intercedes to enough of a degree that you find it easier or harder to associate certain races with your finger poised over the “positive” button. Once enough trials have been run — in the version of the test I took, each race was the target race 3 times for a total of 12 rounds of about 20-30 images each — enough data from your reaction times have been collected that a bias is shown. In my particular case, I found it easiest to associate Asians with positive words, and significantly hardest to associate Hispanics with positive words. Why? I don’t know; that’s a question for the psychologists. I’m unaware of either such correlation in my real life. Any comment I might make would be tainted by the famous Onion headline “I’ll have you know I have several black Friendsters.”

It should go without saying that little valid science is produced by a single run of this test. The idea is that demographic information is collected from each subject, and statistical trends are derived from very large data sets.

Nevertheless, taking yourself on a quick run through an Implicit Association Test can be an eye-opening experience, particularly for those who consider themselves above racial, gender, or body stereotype biases.

Update: I am alerted that a book has been recently released, Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People by Mahzarin R. Banaji and Anthony G. Greenwald, focusing on the results of their research using the Implicit Association Test. I haven’t read it so cannot comment.

45 Responses to “You Are Such a Racist”

  1. Trimegistus says:

    More ways for white liberals to wallow in vicarious guilt.

    • tmac57 says:

      What is the matter with you? Sheesh!

    • RCAF says:

      I guess you find it more appealing to adopt the ne-con approach, which is to deny their is any problem, and continue holding on to the prejudice that “they are just born that way?”

      • Max says:

        What are you talking about? Who is born that way? Why neocon and not paleocon?

      • RCAF says:

        Pick your sterotype – all blacks are criminals, all latinos are lazy, all Muslims are terrorists.
        It’s up to you. I’ll count anyone on the conservative side who subscribes to these racial theory of behaviour.
        It grates me to no end when people start throwing in politics when it really has no place.

      • C. Van Carter says:

        Does anyone believe “all” blacks are criminals and “all” Latinos are lazy, etc.? None of the White Nationalists I know do.

      • RCAF says:

        @C. Van Carter – funny, doesn’t surprise me that you would know them.
        I’m sure they would cede the fact that there are one or two blacks that aren’t, and one or two latinos that are really industrious, but that’s only if they are lying.

  2. Gwenny says:

    I took a very long test a few years ago, to determine my level of racism. Turned out I had NO preference when it came to adults and a tiny preference for dark skinned in children. . not surprising since my youngest child is half black and she was always on my mind since her father kidnapped her when she was 2 and I did not see her until she was 22. When I was young, my first actor crushes were all on darker skinned men, as well. I don’t know if I’m broken or if . . I really don’t know. I look white. (Part Cherokee) I was raised in an all white family . . . which ridiculed me for being a half breed and I really didn’t like white people for a few decades. And yet for a good part of my life I mostly dated darker skinned men. I married white guys, but . . .well, men, can’t live with them, ain’t legal to shoot them, ya know? LOL (I am bi-sexual but woman are too crazy to be involved with for very long.)

  3. Laura says:

    I read that people with Williams syndrome, a rare genetic disorder that causes people to lack social anxiety, also causes people to not be racist. See
    It seems that social anxiety is a necessary precondition for racism, and the root of racist attitudes is a distrust for outsiders.
    I see this as the opposite of inciting guilt, it tells white people that it’s natural to esteem one’s own racial group higher. For any racial group one belongs to, people who look different will be subject to prejudice. Accepting this tendency, not having to deny it as a “sin”, makes it possible to do things to counteract it.
    Weirdly, the beta blocker propanolol also apparently makes people less racist by reducing unconscious fear, see
    They used the racial implicit association test to measure unconscious racial bias.

  4. DC says:

    Though I consider myself white, I had the most difficulty associating white faces with good words. Black, then Hispanic, then Asian faces (descending order) were grouped together slightly above the middle of the chart. I don’t know what that says about me, but I doubt any result would have really bothered me.

    On a side note, as a left handed person, I felt that it might have been easier for me if I had been allowed to use my left hand for good words. I can’t say for sure, but I think they should consider letting the subject choose which hand is which, or making it random. Actually, for all I know, it is random, although I didn’t see any mention of handedness in the FAQ or the experiment itself.

    • Max says:

      As long as they use the same hand for good words throughout the test, it shouldn’t matter, right?

      • DC says:

        Not necessarily. My point is that rather than measuring a direct association between faces and words, they are associating each to either left or right.

        Maybe that’s why they show you words as well, so they can guage your ability to associate “good” with “right” in the first place. The effect of any bias might be minimized already, but I was hoping to see some discussion of it.

  5. C. Van Carter says:

    There’s no proof Implicit Association Tests measure or detect racism, whatever that is.

    • Steven St. John says:

      I think this is correct. The IAT measures the strength of Pavlovian conditioning processes, and so is perhaps an indirect measure of your experiential history – how often you have been exposed to certain contingencies. Racism – I think – isn’t defined by unconscious processes but rather by your conscious evaluation of whether or not one race is better than another.

      Of course, our behavior is often driven to a large extent by unconscious processes including classical conditioning, and thus the IAT may well say something about racial discrimination. Doing poorly on the IAT wouldn’t make you racist, in my book, but it should serve as a reminder for one to be mindful of consciously over-riding that Pavlovian history.

      • RCAF says:

        Well put, except I would think that the response is more of an inheirent response, rather than a conditioned response. In either case, it can be overcome by understanding it, and taking precautions against it.

      • Steven St. John says:

        It’s an empirical question. I was basing my reasoning on some other findings in psychology. For example, there used to be a strong cross-race face recognition deficit. Whites had a better ability to recognize previously-seen white faces (e.g., from a photograph set shown earlier) than black or asian faces. In some cases the opposite was true (Blacks better remembering black faces) but not always. However, this effect has gradually gone away over time – perhaps as a result of school integration or the greater prevalence of black and asian faces on TV and in other places.

        So in other words, the cross-race face recognition effect probably isn’t “inherent” in the sense of genetically-determined, but is a reflection of how often we are exposed to faces of a particular variety.

    • RCAF says:

      Seriously? Do you not believe it, or do you afraid that you may be one?
      Racism is the belief that certain characteristics are associated with an arbitrary division of the human spieces that we call a race. So if you believe that there is actually something such as black, white or yellow, then you have a racist view of the world. And it is racist to call someone ‘Asian’ who is from the eastern part of the continent, but not use that term for those from the western, and northern parts.

      • C. Van Carter says:

        Is that what IATs are measuring? ‘Racist’ isn’t a scientific concept (and it’s absurd to label those recognizing the reality of race ‘racist'; if you don’t believe races exist you are truly stupid). I’ve taken multiple IATs, my scores indicate I have slight bias toward non-whites, so despite my ‘racist’ political views and all of the ‘racist’ jokes I tell I am definitely not ‘racist’. Or do these tests only work one way?

      • RCAF says:

        I’m stupid? But you have claim you don’t know what racism is? Wow, you’re dumber than a bag of hangers – dumb ass.
        Let me explain, what seems beyond your mental abilities. I believe in racism because I believe that people believe in it. It’s the same as I believe in theists, though I don’t believe in a supernatural being who created the universe. I’m really incredulous as how this is beyond you, then again, I don’t understand the much of the stupidity in the world.
        So you can game a test to make it look like you are positively biased towards another group? If you are telling me you have racist politics, and tell racist jokes, then guess what? You’re a racist. Not so hard, is it?

      • RCAF says:

        I’m stupid? But you have claim you don’t know what racism is? Wow, you’re dumber than a bag of hangers – dumb ass.
        Let me explain, what seems beyond your mental abilities. I believe in racism because I believe that people believe in it. It’s the same as I believe in theists, though I don’t believe in a supernatural being who created the universe. I’m really incredulous as how this is beyond you, then again, I don’t understand the much of the stupidity in the world.
        So you can game a test to make it look like you are positively biased towards another group? If you are telling me you have racist politics, and tell racist jokes, then guess what? You’re a racist. Not so hard, is it?

      • C. Van Carter says:

        My IAT scores are scientific proof I’m not a ‘racist’, whatever that is.

      • RCAF says:

        @C, or it’s evidence that you have high social desireability.
        Let me ask you, if you claim you believe in ‘racists’ politics, or tell ‘racist’ jokes, how do you claim you don’t know what it is? I don’t believe in race, but I know what it is. Just like I don’t believe in religion, but I know what it is.

  6. David G. says:

    I’m not surprise I’m slightly biased towards Anglo people. I just think I have more in common. That’s not racist, I my opinion. What’s wrong with that?

  7. Max says:

    I’d think that you’re biased by the order in which the target races are presented. If you get used to associating Asians with good words in the first round, it’s hard to switch and associate them with bad words in the next round.
    Randomizing the order averages out the bias when many people take the test, but for an individual test taker it may be the biggest bias for all I know.

    • starskeptic says:

      I had that same problem – the longer the test goes on, the more unlearning figures into the learning curve.

    • Lans Ellion says:

      I had the same problem. I got two rounds in a row of associating Asian people with good words. And the only non-Asian faces were African. Then I had the opposite. This seems like it might be a fairly large flaw on the individual level. It seems to me that this test essentially trains associations and then sees how well you can break these quickly learned associations.

      I’d guess you would be right that on the whole you could average it out. I’d be interested to see results of first round only.

    • Max says:

      I took the test twice.
      First time, Whites were presented first, and in the end they were near the top, and Hispanics near the bottom.
      Second time, Hispanics were presented first, and in the end they were near the top, and Whites were near the bottom.

      Their FAQ says the influence of order is small. They talk about reversing the order, but with four targets there are many more permutations.

      1. Could the result be a function of the order in which I did the two parts? I had to group one category together with pleasant words first. I then found it difficult when I later had to group the other category with pleasant words.

      Answer: The order in which tests are administered does make a difference to the overall result in some tests. However, the difference is small and recent changes to the test have sharply reduced the influence of order. Because of this order effect, the orders used for IATs presented on this website are assigned at random. For any data we present, we are careful to be sure that half the test-takers got the A then B order and the other half got the B then A order. With the revised task design, the order has only a minimal influence on task performance. If you want to check whether the order made a difference for you, you can take the test again and complete it if you get assigned to the reverse order. If you do take the test twice in different orders and get different outcomes, the best estimate of your result is intermediate between the two. For more information about the order effect, see this paper (Nosek, Greenwald, & Banaji, in press).

  8. Tom says:

    I agree with C. Van Carter. How is this validated? Is it consistent between tests? Is it really measuring sub-conscience racism, or is it measuring something else?

    It seems intuitive that association of positive/negative could measure racism, but a lot of things seemed intuitive.

    • RCAF says:

      From what I recall when I was dealing with these things, it actually has high reliability, but when it comes to validity, you have to remember it doesn’t measure actions – i.e. discrimination, only beliefs – i.e. prejudice.
      I don’t know anyone who doesn’t have prejudices, we all have our likes and dislikes. It’s important, however, to realize that you hold them so you can deal with them.

      • Tom says:

        > but when it comes to validity, you have to remember it doesn’t measure actions

        That’s my point, it’s easy to point to the results of the test and say “Yup, you’re biased against blacks/whites/hispanics/whatever”, but it is apparently the only test to measure this. How is it validated? How do we know the results measure what it says it measures? Certainly we all have biases, but does this test really measure them? I’m not saying it is wrong, just that I have no real reason to think it’s correct.

        I’m reminded of a crappy “alternative health” test my neighbor made me take. It asked things like “How often do you eat soy? How often do you eat meat? How often do you eat dairy products? How often do you eat vegetables heated to over 118 degrees?” etc. The “results” said I was very unhealthy, and in desperate need of a raw-food diet.

        We have an unvalidated test which is measuring “something” and telling you what that “something” is.

        Again, not saying it must be wrong, or that we have no prejudices, I’m just being properly skeptical of an unvalidated psychological test.

      • RCAF says:

        I could be mistaken, but I’m really not aware of any psychological test that can accurately predict a behavioural outcome. When I studied it a few decades ago, they constantly pointed out that an individual’s scores on either personality or social psychology tests weren’t well correlated with their actual behaviours.

        This isn’t restricted to psychology tests, either. It’s well known that the Michigan Consumer Confidence Survey doesn’t correlate well with consumer spending. When they ask people if they attend church regularly, the result is usually double the actual number of attendees.

        It’s also complicated by the fact that behaviour is constrained by social norms. I know individuals who are very racist and/or sexist, and years ago they may have done something about it. However, they don’t act on it now, as isn’t proper in today’s society.

        BTW, if you haven’t done it, you should check out the WSJ review, as it goes over the issues with the test, and there are a lot. Despite the issues, I do believe this is a good test to raise awareness. However, I am not arguing that it will predict discrimination. On that point, I don’t think any test ever can do that.

      • tmac57 says:

        I know individuals who are very racist and/or sexist, and years ago they may have done something about it. However, they don’t act on it now, as isn’t proper in today’s society.

        I suspect that those people want to go back to those days,and are the ones holding up those “I want my country back!!!!!” signs that you see at Tea Party rallies.

      • Max says:

        Before the test, there are a bunch of questions about your feelings about different races. Is there any significant correlation between the answers and the test results?

      • RCAF says:

        None, that is part of the testing. They are trying to show that people don’t hold the views they believe they do.
        Does this mean there is a political bent here? I’m not going to speculate. I don’t think the test will measure behaviour. I just think it’s a useful tool to raise awareness.

      • Max says:

        If the test doesn’t predict behavior and doesn’t even correlate with people’s self-description, even of admitted racists, then what the heck is left? Sounds unfalsifiable and useless.

  9. buttons says:

    What does this have to do with skeptics???????

    • Dan says:

      Helping us be aware of our unconscious biases has everything to do with skepticism. While I believe skepticism is important in helping us evaluate other people’s beliefs and biases, it is even more important to examine ourselves for biases and the influences of culture that aren’t helpful or accurate.

  10. RCAF says:

    I think the important issue to understand is that we all harbour predjudices. It was an important survival trait to be able to rapidly catagorize situations that were likely to be harmful to you. It is also important to realize that one of the biggest threats to humans through much of history was other humans. People not in your social group were far more likely to harm you than help you, or leave you alone. So it isn’t surprising that we would have a negative bias to people that don’t look like we do.

    That being said, we don’t live in that society, and it isn’t acceptable to discriminate against people for the way they look. Once we understand that we have certain prejudices, we can deal with them in a rational way. I can respect someone who admits they have certain preduices, but realizes that, and is taking steps to avoid it affecting their judgement. On the other hand, it infuriates me when I hear someone preface their arguments with “I’m not a racist, but…”.

  11. Lines says:

    I always wonder why anytime people get talking about race, racism, discrimination, or sexism it quickly turns into 2nd grade all over again. “Your stupid, no I’m not, you’re stupid, well you’re stupider, no you’re stupidest!!!!” or “You’re racist, well you are racister, well you’re racistest!!!! I AM TELLING!!! MOOOOOOMMMMM!!!!!!

    Anyhow, I always hate hearing someone being pidgeonholed into a particular subsect because of people he knows. In my varied travels I have seen racism of all types and I choose to embrace the story behind it. I have heard things such as “Why are you people always coming here and taking our jobs?” or “Fool, don’t you know your kind isn’t welcome here?” or “Why don’t you work for a living for once?” WHY they say this is the most important question. Why do we have prejudices? I submit it is not for survival, but fear of the unknown. If you haven’t been exposed to different people, you innately fear how they may act or react to your presence.

    Instead of being offended, I chose to ask them WHY they felt that way. Most of the time it was because they didn’t know many like myself and were afraid of what I might say or do. Did I change their attitudes? Mostly not, but I came away with a greater appreciation of their point of view and I call some of them friends now despite their ongoing racism. Call me crazy, but I love putting myself into those types of situations. I think we all need to take a step back, relax, and enjoy our mental / physical differences even if we are prejudiced against them.

    • Max says:

      Get a job and stop taking our jobs!

    • tmac57 says:

      My personal theory about this is that people are overwhelmed,and not prepared to deal with the complexity of our world. Instead of seeing each person as an individual,it is easier to group strangers into categories,and then judge them based on a profile of that group that they have acquired through a variety of ways.
      The problem is that some people will fit the stereotype,and confirm those biases,while the ones that don’t are forgotten.This is the default way we have of dealing with our world,because it is easier than doing the hard work and putting in the time to understand all of the nuances of a complicated reality.

  12. Max says:

    Police departments are turning to pseudoscience to weed out racist applicants.;

    The article mostly talks about the polygraph test, which even the spokesman for the American Polygraph Association says “can’t accurately predict whether someone is racist.”

    Then, it says, “The Metropolitan Nashville Police Department requires job candidates to undergo a voice stress test during the interviewing process. Would-be officers are asked about bias during the test.”
    Unlike the polygraph, a voice stress test doesn’t even detect stress; it detects sampling noise.

    The ACLU is conflicted, because it applauds fighting racism, but opposes the use of lie detectors.

    But see, lie detectors can’t detect a racist who doesn’t know he’s racist, so finally, at the end of the article, UCR professor of psychology Carolyn Murray supports using the Implicit Association Test, which apparently doesn’t predict behavior, but only detects subconscious attitudes that don’t express themselves in any way other than one’s performance on the Implicit Association Test (my words, not hers).

    Police departments did have another tool, which was to demand access to the applicant’s Facebook account, but I think the ACLU sued over that.

    • tmac57 says:

      Maybe they should give dowsing a try.
      Also,I’m sure some acupuncturists could be employed to purge the racism out of applicants.

  13. rb3 says:

    Racism is more than being more comfortable with one group than another. If you talk to a real racist for more than ten minutes you will know. Racism in its more harmful forms goes beyond stereotypes and misconceptions or even unconscious biases that may be nothing more than some crap your crazy uncle drunkenly spewed while drunk at the family reunion rearing it’s head. Racism implies conscious discrimination and even hatred of a group of people because THEY ARE THOSE PEOPLE. All the stereotypes are just lame justifications for this irrational behavior.

    So take heart all you bleeding heart liberals and heartless conservatives. You probably aren’t as bad as you or they other side thinks.