The Implicit Prejudice

Mahzarin Banaji can show how we connect "good" and "bad" with biased attitudes we hold, even if we say we don't. Especially when we say we don't

Mahzarin Banaji wrestled with a slide projector while senior executives filed grumpily into the screening room at New Line Cinema studios in Los Angeles. They anticipated a pointless November afternoon in which they would be lectured on diversity, including their shortcomings in portraying characters on-screen. "My expectations were of total boredom," admitted Camela Galano, president of New Line International.

By the break, though, executives for New Line and its fellow Time Warner subsidiary HBO were crowding around Banaji, eager for more. The 50-year-old experimental social psychologist from Harvard University had started with a series of images that showed the tricks our minds play. In one video clip, a team passed around a basketball. Of the 45 executives watching, just one noticed the woman who walked slowly right through the game, carrying an open white umbrella. After a few more examples, Banaji had convinced the audience that these kinds of mistakes in perception, or "mind bugs," operate all the time, especially in our unconscious responses to other people.

"It's reasonable and rational," Banaji told them. "And it's an error." We may intend to be fair, she ex--plain--ed, but underneath our awareness, our minds automatically make connections and ignore contradictory information. Sure enough, in a paper quiz, the executives readily associated positive words with their parent firm, Time Warner, but they found it harder to link them to their top competitor, the Walt Disney Company. To their chagrin, they discovered the same tenden-cy to pair positive terms with faces that have European features and negative ones with faces that have African features.

Banaji has been studying these implicit attitudes and their unintended social consequences since the late 1980s, when she first teamed up with Anthony Greenwald of the University of Washington. Greenwald created the very first implicit association test (IAT). He measured how quickly people tapped keys on a computer keyboard in response to prompts on the screen. Would they more easily associate positive words such as "happy" or "peace" with pictures of flowers and negative words such as "rotten" or "ugly" with insects? Predictably, they did. Then he began testing responses to words and images associated with ethnicity and race. Participants' automatic reactions did not match the attitudes they said they held. Among social psychologists seeking investigative instruments, "the IAT just took off in a flash," Greenwald recalls.

In the decades since, Banaji, Greenwald and a third collaborator, Brian Nosek of the University of Virginia, have continued to find fresh ways to use the IAT and other tools to probe bias: its nature, where it comes from and how it works. With neuroscientists, for instance, Banaji combined classical fear conditioning, implicit attitude measures and people's own descriptions of interracial dating to study how social groups come to fear one another. Banaji hopes next to work with primatologists to learn about our predisposition as a species to build bias into our perceptions.

Even in people with genuinely egalitarian views, Banaji and her colleagues find that bias is ordinary and ingrained and remains active outside our awareness. When the team realized the power of unconscious attitudes in everyday decision making, she says, "we knew the right thing was to take this to the public." On an IAT Web site (, users can try 14 measures--to find out whether they automatically favor young over old, for instance, or prefer thin to overweight. Ten new sections include country-specific IATs, such as Muslim-Hindu and Pakistan-India associations.

At least two million people have tried the tests online so far, and many have offered suggestions. "Once you put it out there, you have to listen to what people are saying--and their ideas are brilliant," Banaji finds. She has begun venturing from the lab to teach people about prejudice, employing humor, intellect and kindness as she alerts investment bankers, media executives and lawyers to the buried biases that lead to mistakes.

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