How do these tests measure unconscious bias?

Science! Check out this explanation from one of the leading implicit bias researchers, Dr. Mahzarin Banaji:

This was frustrating! It felt like the test was trying to trick me.

That's actually how the test works. If your conscious thoughts and intentions had all the control, then the test couldn't discover anything about the associations happening in your unconscious.  The mistakes and time-lapses we make when we take the test are what reveals how strongly or weakly the ideas are associated in our minds.

The order of the test seemed to affect my results. Did it?

Here's the answer from the researchers at Project Implicit: "Yes, the order in which you take the test does have some influence on your overall results. However, the difference is very small. So if you first pair gay people + bad and then pair gay people + good, your results might be a just a tiny bit more negative than they would be if you had done the reverse pairing first. One way that we try to minimize this order effect is by giving more practice trials before the second pairing than we did before the first pairing. It is also important to know that each participant is randomly assigned to an order, so half of test-takers complete gay people + bad and then gay people + good, and the other half of test-takers get the opposite order."

... Or what about the factors of handedness or hand-eye coordination?

Here's the answer from the researchers at Project Implicit: "There is no evidence that handedness influences IAT scores. When thinking about the influence of hand-eye coordination or cognitive ability, keep in mind how the test works. In a gay-straight IAT we measure how long it takes people to categorize items when gay + good share a response key versus when gay + bad share a response key. People who have better hand-eye coordination or higher cognitive ability might be generally faster to respond, but there is no reason to think that they would be faster in one category pairing versus the other. For this reason we do not think that hand-eye coordination will influence IAT scores."

Want to dig deeper into the science of implicit bias?

Project ImplicitProject Implicit: Start with these frequently asked questions about implicit association posed to the researchers who developed the online bias test.


Racial Bias, Even When We Have Good Intentions: Recent research on racial bias reveals that it is much more common than we are led to believe. This round-up of findings explains how snap judgments can creep into our behavior without us taking notice.

hidden_brainHow 'The Hidden Brain' Does The Thinking For Us: Science writer, Shankar Vedantam, explores the rich field of implicit bias research in his book for popular audiences, The Hidden Brain.

Kirwan InstituteUnderstanding Implicit Bias: The Kirwan Institute is committed to raising awareness of the distressing impacts of implicit racial bias and exposing the ways in which this phenomenon creates and reinforces racialized barriers to opportunity.

Perception Institute

The Perception Institute: Recent studies from this organization document how implicit bias shapes the lives of black men and boys, as well as exploring how integrating implicit bias insights with story-telling can help undo the harms of discrimination.

Implicit Bias and PhilosophyImplicit Bias and Philosophy: This international research project provides extensive reading lists in psychology and philosophy and connections to scholars exploring the implications of bias research.