The general public has accepted the idea of implicit bias; that is, individuals may be prejudice without awareness. For example, in 2018 Starbucks closed their stores for one day to train employees to detect and avoid implicit bias (cf. Schimmack, 2018).
However, among psychological scientists the concept of implicit bias is controversial (Blanton et al., 2009; Schimmack, 2019). The notion of implicit bias is only a scientific construct if it can be observed with scientific methods, and this requires valid measures of implicit bias.
Valid measures of implicit bias require evidence of reliability, convergent validity, discriminant validity, and incremental predictive validity. Proponents of implicit bias claim that measures of implicit bias have demonstrated these properties. Critics are not convinced.
For example, Cunningham, Preacher, and Banaji (2001) conducted a multi-method study and claimed that their results showed convergent validity among implicit measures and that implicit measures correlated more strongly with each other than with explicit measures. However, Schimmack (2019) demonstrated that a model with a single factor fit the data better and that the explicit measures loaded higher on this factor than the evaluative priming measure. This finding challenges the claim that implicit measures possess discriminant validity. That is, the are implicit measures of racial bias, but they are not measures of implicit racial bias.
A forthcoming meta-analysis claims that implicit measures have unique predictive validity (Kurdi et al., 2018). The average effect size for the correlation between an implicit measure and a criterion was r = .14. However, this estimate is based on studies across many different attitude objects and includes implicit measures of stereotypes and identity. Not surprisingly, the predictive validity was heterogeneous. Thus, the average does not provide information about the predictive validity of implicit measures of implicit bias. The most important observation was that sample sizes of many studies were too small to investigate predictive validity given the small expected effect size. Most studies had sample sizes with fewer than 100 participants (see Figure 1).
A notable exception is a study of voting intentions in the historic 2008 presidential election, where US voters had a choice to elect the first Black president, Obama, or the Republican candidate McCain. A major question at that time was how much race and prejudice would influence the vote.
Greenwald, Tucker Smith, Sriram, Bar-Anan, and Nosek (2009) conducted a study to address this question.
They obtained data from N = 1,057 participants who completed online implicit measures and responded to survey questions.
The key outcome variable was a simple dichotomous question about voting intentions. The sample was not a national representative sample as indicated by 84.2% declared votes for Obama versus 15.8% declared votes for McCain.
The predictor variables were two self-report measures of prejudice (feeling-thermometer, Likert scale), two implicit measures (Brief IAT, AMP), the Symbolic Racism Scale, and a measure of political orientation (Conservative vs. Liberal).
The correlation among all measures were reported in Table 1.
The results for the Brief IAT (BIAT) are highlighted. First, the BIAT does predict voting intentions (r = .17). Second, the BIAT shows convergent validity with the second implicit measure; the Affective Missattribution Paradigm (AMP). Third, the IAT also correlates with the explicit measures of racial bias. Most important, the correlations with the implicit AMP are weaker than the correlations with the explicit measures. This finding confirms Schimmack’s (2019) finding that implicit measures lack discriminant validity.
The correlation table does not address the question whether implicit measures have incremental predictive validity. To examine this question, I fit a structural equation model to the reproduced covariance matrix based on the reported correlations and standard deviations using MPLUS8.2. The model shown in Figure 1 had good overall fit, chi2(9, N = 1057) = 15.40, CFI = .997, RMSEA = .026, 90%CI = .000 to .047.
The model shows that explicit and implicit measures of racial bias load on a common factor (att). Whereas the explicit measures share method variance, the residuals of the two implicit measures are not correlated. This confirms the lack of discriminant validity. That is, there is no unique variance shared only by implicit measures. The strongest predictor of voting intentions is political orientation. Symbolic racism is a mixture of conservatism and racial bias, and it has no unique relationship with voting intentions. Racial bias does make a unique contribution to voting intentions, (b = .22, SE = .05, t = 4.4). The blue path shows that the BIAT does have predictive validity above and beyond political orientation, but the effect is indirect. That is, the IAT is a measure of racial bias and racial bias contributes to voter intentions. The red path shows that the BIAT has no unique relationship with voting intentions. The negative coefficient is not significant. Thus, there is no evidence that the unique variance in the BIAT reflects some form of implicit racial bias that influences voting intentions.
In short, these results provide no evidence for the claim that implicit measures tap implicit racial biases. In fact, there is no scientific evidence for the concept of implicit bias, which would require evidence of discriminant validity and incremental validity.
The use of structural equation modeling (SEM) was highly recommended by the authors of the forthcoming meta-analysis (Kurdi et al., 2018). Here I applied SEM used the best data with multiple explicit and implicit measures, an important criterion variable, and a large sample size that is sufficient to detect small relationships. Contrary to the meta-analysis, the results do not support the claim that implicit measures have incremental predictive validity. In addition, the results confirmed Schimmack’s (2019) results that implicit measures lack discriminant validity. Thus, the construct of implicit racial bias lacks empirical support. Implicit measures like the IAT are best considered as implicit measures of racial bias that is also reflected in explicit measures.
With regard to the political question whether racial bias influenced voting in the 2008 election, these results suggest that racial bias did indeed matter. Using only explicit measures would have underestimated the effect of racial bias due to the substantial method variance in these measures. Thus, the IAT can make an important contribution to the measurement of racial bias because it doesn’t share method variance with explicit measures.
In the future, users of implicit measures need to be more careful in their claims about the construct validity of implicit measures. Greenwald et al. (2009) constantly conflate implicit measures of racial bias with measures of implicit racial bias. For example, the title claims “Implicit Race Attitudes Predicted Vote” , the term “Implicit race attitude measure” is ambiguous because it could mean implicit measure or implicit attitude, whereas the term “implicit measures of race attitudes” implies that the measures are implicit but the construct is racial bias; otherwise it would be “implicit measures of implicit racial bias.” The confusion arises from a long tradition in psychology to conflate measures and constructs (e.g., intelligence is whatever an IQ test measures) (Campbell & Fiske, 1959). Structural equation modeling makes it clear that measures (boxes) and constructs (circles) are distinct and that measurement theory is needed to relate measures to constructs. At present, there is clear evidence that implicit measures can measure racial bias, but there is no evidence that attitudes have an explicit and an implicit component. Thus, scientific claims about racial bias do not support the idea that racial bias is implicit. This idea is based on the confusion of measures and constructs in the social cognition literature.