Brain Nosek explains the IAT

I spent 20 minutes, actually more than 20 minutes because I had to rewind to transcribe, listening to a recent podcast in which Brain Nosek was asked some questions about the IAT and implicit bias training (The Psychology Podcast, August 1, 2019).

Scott Barry Kaufman: How do you see the IAT now and how did you see it when you started work on Project Implicit? How discrepant are these stats of mind?

Brian Nosek: I hope I have learned a lot from all the research that we have done on it over the years. In the big picture I have the same view that I have had since we did the first set of studies. It is a great tool for research purposes and we have been able to learn a lot about the tool itself and about human behavior and interaction with the tool and a lot about the psychology of things that are [gap] occur with less control AND less awareness than just asking people how they feel about topics. So that has been and continues to be a very productive research area for trying to understand better how humans work.

And then the main concern that we had at onset and that is actually a lot of the discussion of even creating the website is the same anticipated some of the concerns and overuses that happened with the IAT in the present and that is the natural – I don’t know if natural is the right word – the common desire that people have for simple solutions and thinking well a measure is a direct indicator of something that we care about and it shouldn’t have any error in measurement and it should be applicable to lots and lots of situations.  And thus lots of potential of misuse of the IAT despite it being a very productive research tool and education too.  I like the experience of doing it and delivering to an audience and the discussion it provokes; what is it that it means, what does it mean about me, what does it mean about the world; those are really productive intellectual discussions and debates.  But the risk part the overapplication of the IAT for selection processes. We should use this. We should [?] use this for deciding who gets a job or not; we should [?] use this who is on a jury or not. Those are the kind of real-world applications of it as a measure that go far beyond its validity.  And so this isn‘t exact answering your question because even at the very beginning when we launched the website we said explicitly it should not be used for these purposes and I still believe this to be true. What has changed over time is the refinement of where it is we understand the evidence base against some of the major questions. And what is amazing about it is that there has been so much research and we still don’t have a great handle on really big questions relating to the IAT and measures like it.  So this is just part of [unclear]  how hard it is to actually make progress in the study of human behavior.   

Scott Barry Kaufman:  Let’s talk shop for a second [my translation; enough with the BS]. My dissertation at Yale a couple of year after years was looking at the question are there individual differences in implicit cognition.  And the idea was to ask this question because from a trait perspective I felt that was a huge gap in the literature. There was so much research on the reliability and validity of IQ tests for instance, but I wanted to ask the question if we adapt some of these implicit cognition measures from the social psychological experimental literature for an individual differences paradigm you know are they reliable and stable differences. And I have a whole appendix of failed experiments – by the way, you should tell how to publish that some day but we’ll get to that in a second, but so much of my dissertation, I am putting failed in quotes because you know I mean that was useful information … it was virtually impossible to capture reliable individual differences that cohered over time but I did find one that did and I published that as a serial reaction time task, but anyway, before we completely lose my audience which is a general audience I just want to say that I am trying to link this because for me one of the things that I am most wary about with the IAT is like – and this might be more of a feature than a bug – but it may be capturing at this given moment in time when a person is taking the test it is capturing a lot of the societal norms and influences are on that person’s associations but not capturing so much an intrinsic sort of stable individual differences variable. So I just wanted to throw that out and see what your current thoughts on that are.

Brian Nosek:   Yeah, it is clear that it is not trait like in the same way that a measure like the Big Five for personality is trait-like.  It does show stability over time, but much more weakly than that.  Across a variety of topics you might see a test-retest correlation for the IAT measuring the same construct of about .5  The curiosity for this is;  I guess it is a few curiosities. One is does that mean we have have some degree of trait variance because there is some stability over time and what is the rest? Is the rest error or is it state variance in some way, right. Some variation that is meaningful variation that is sensitive to the context of measurement. Surely it is some of both, but we don’t know how much. And there isn’t yet a real good insight on where the prediction components of the IAT are and how it anticipates behavior, right.  If we could separate in a real reliable way the trait part, the state part, and the error part, than we should be able to uniquely predict different type of things between the trait, the state, and the trait components. Another twist which is very interesting that is totally understudied in my view is the variations in which it is state or trait like seems to vary by the topic you are investigating. When you do a Democrat – Republican IAT, to what extent do people favor one over the other, the correlation with self-report is very strong and the stability over time is stronger than when you measure Black-White or some of the other types of topics. So there is also something about the attitude construct itself that you are assessing that is not as much measurement based but that is interacting with the measure that is anticipating the extent to which it is trait or state like. So these are all interesting things that if I had time to study them would be the problems I would be studying, but I had to leave that aside

Scott Barry Kaufman: You touch on a really interesting point about this. How would you measure the outcome of this two-day or week- training thing? It seems that would not be a very good thing to then go back to the IAT and see a difference between the IAT, IAT pre and IAT-post, doesn’t seem like the best outcome you know you’d want, I mean you ….

Brian Nosek I mean you could just change the IAT and that would be the end of it. But, of course, if that doesn’t actually shift behavior then what was the point?

Scott Barry Kaufman:  to what extent are we making advances in demonstrating that there are these implicit influences on explicit behavior that are outside of our value system? Where are we at right now? 

[Uli, coughs, Bargh, elderly priming]

Brian Nosek: Yeah, that is a good question. I cannot really comment on the micro-aggression literature. I don’t follow that as a distinct literature, but on the general point I think it is the big picture story is pretty clear with evidence which is we do things with automaticity, we do things that are counterproductive to our interests all the time, and sometimes we recognize we are doing it, sometimes we don’t, but a lot of time it is not controllable.  But that is a very big picture, very global, very non-specific point.

If you want to find out what 21 years of research on the IAT have shown, you can read my paper (Schimmack, in press, PoPS). In short,

  • most of the variance in the race IAT (Black-White) is random and systematic measurement error.
  • Up to a quarter of the variance reflects racial attitudes that are also reflected in self-report measures of racial attitudes; most clearly in direct ratings of feelings towards Blacks and Whites.
  • there is little evidence that any of the variance in IAT scores reflects some implicit attitudes that are outside of people’s awareness
  • there is no reliable evidence that IAT scores predict discriminatory behavior in the real world
  • visitors of Project Implicit are given invalid feedback that they may hold unconscious biases and are not properly informed about the poor psychometric properties of the test.
  • Founders of Project Implicit have not disclosed how much money they make from speaking engagements related to Project Implicit, royalties from the book “Blindspot,” and do not declare conflict of interest in IAT-related publications.
  • It is not without irony that educators on implicit bias may fail to realize that they have an implicit bias in reading the literature and to dismiss criticism.

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