Can We Really Measure Implicit Bias? Maybe Not


JANUARY 05, 2017

Jordin Isip for The Chronicle Review

Iharbor a moderate preference for white faces. You probably do, too: About 70 percent of people who take the race version of the Implicit Association Test show the same tendency — that is, they prefer faces with typically European-American features over those with African-American features. Since it first went online in 1998, millions have visited Harvard’s Project Implicit website, and the results have been cited in thousands of peer-reviewed papers. No other measure has been as influential in the conversation about unconscious bias.That influence extends well beyond the academy. The findings come up often in discussions of police shootings of black men, and the concept of implicit bias circulated widely after Hillary Clinton mentioned it during the presidential campaign . The test provides scientific grounding for the idea that unacknowledged prejudice often lurks just below society’s surface. “When we relax our active efforts to be egalitarian, our implicit biases can lead to discriminatory behavior,” according to the Project Implicit website, “so it is critical to be mindful of this possibility if we want to avoid prejudice and discrimination.”

In other words, beware your inner bigot.

But the link between unconscious bias, as measured by the test, and biased behavior has long been debated among scholars, and a new analysis casts doubt on the supposed connection.

Researchers from the University of Wisconsin at Madison, Harvard, and the University of Virginia examined 499 studies over 20 years involving 80,859 participants that used the IAT and other, similar measures. They discovered two things: One is that the correlation between implicit bias and discriminatory behavior appears weaker than previously thought. They also conclude that there is very little evidence that changes in implicit bias have anything to do with changes in a person’s behavior. These findings, they write, “produce a challenge for this area of research.”

That’s putting it mildly. “When you actually look at the evidence we collected, there’s not necessarily strong evidence for the conclusions people have drawn,” says Patrick Forscher, a co-author of the paper, which is currently under review at Psychological Bulletin. The finding that changes in implicit bias don’t lead to changes in behavior, Forscher says, “should be stunning.”

Hart Blanton was not stunned. For the last decade, Blanton, a professor of psychology at the University of Connecticut, has been arguing that the Implicit Association Test isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. In a 2013 meta-analysis of papers, Blanton and his co-authors declared that, despite its frequent characterization as a window into the unconscious, “the IAT provides little insight into who will discriminate against whom, and provides no more insight than explicit measures of bias.” (By “explicit measures” they mean simply asking people if they are biased against a particular group.)

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Just Say “No” to Popcorn Reading


One question often posed to me by teachers is, “How can I engage and break up the monotony of long sections of oral reading in class?”  Great question!  As educators, we know the importance of reading aloud in class; whether a student is in 3rd grade or AP Calculus, hearing someone skillfully read sections of text promotes fluency and comprehension of both fiction and non-fiction.  However, reading aloud can be monotonous if we use the same method or only have one or two readers involved, as it renders most of the students passive.

Popcorn reading (randomly calling on students to read aloud-whether their hand is raised or not) is a common practice, though I recommend the strategy be banned or at least modified in the following way.  Some teachers assign a different section of text to be read by each student, the first student then begins reading and others don’t follow along and comprehend because surprise, they are all reading the section in which they were assigned. If a teacher insists on doing reading like this in class, then please allow students a few minutes to read and rehearse their part before anyone starts reading aloud.  This way, students will not be anxious about reading their section as they have already practiced, and once prepared, they can focus and follow along with the current readers.

Popcorn reading, when used as a classroom management tactic to “catch” those who are not paying attention, in my opinion, should never be used. It increases the “affective filter” or level of discomfort in the classroom as many don’t like to be “put on the spot” to read aloud, especially when so many of our students struggle with reading in general.  Reading should never be used as a management tool or punishment.  For more reasons as to why this method is frowned upon, please read Todd Finley’s article , “11 Alternatives to Round Robin Reading.”  

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