Not only didn’t I believe, I didn’t want to believe it. But two more tries produced the same result.
“Your data suggest a strong automatic preference for light skin compared to dark skin,” it said.
I’ve taken classes at universities with people of just about every race you can name. I’ve worked in Canada’s diplomatic corps. And now this test says I have a “strong automatic preference for light skin compared to dark skin?”
It is the Implicit Association Test and it has been around since the 1990s. I ran into it while reading Shankar Vedantam’s book The Hidden Brain: How our unconscious minds elect presidents, control markets, wage wars, and save our lives.
We see ourselves as rational beings who consider all the options, then make a decision based on the evidence — think Mr. Spock from Star Trek, with a sense of humour. Vedantam says that’s not even close.
I’m familiar with the idea. Psychology loves it. Researchers at Yale University, for example,demonstrated how strange our decision-making can be with a hot drink.
They asked volunteers to speak to someone who was secretly in on the test. Heading up in the elevator, the volunteer was asked to hold a drink. Then, they introduced the volunteer to the person and were later asked, based on the brief meeting, if they would recommend hiring the person.
“He’s a generally friendly guy,” said a male volunteer in the first group.
“Yeah, why not,” said a young woman in the same group.
The reaction was quite different for a second group.
“As a leader? I’m not sure. Based on the brief interaction? No,” said one man.
“Maybe not from the impression I got,” said a woman.
The difference? The temperature of the drink they were asked to hold while in the elevator. Those holding a warm drink were more likely to say they’d hire the guy. Those holding a cold drink tended to say no.
True, the temperature of a drink should have nothing to do with hiring someone. Not to the conscious brain. But the part unconscious is something else entirely. Enter the Implicit Association Test.
The online test takes a couple of minutes. You press the ‘e’ button if what you see on the screen matches what’s on the left. And the ‘i’ button if the match is on the right.
Do the raceversion of the test and first you see a white face and a brown one. You press the buttons as quickly as you can, matching faces flashed in the middle of the screen to the ones on the right or left.
Then you do it again, only the categories are ‘good’ and ‘bad’ You match them to words like joy, peace, wonderful, pleasure, agony, terrible, horrible, nasty and evil. No problem.
Then the light- and dark-skinned faces return, first with ‘good’ under the light one and ‘bad’ under the dark one. Then it switches — with ‘good’ under the dark image and ‘bad’under the light one.
You match the words joy, peace, wonderful, pleasure, agony, terrible, horrible, nasty and evil to the proper side. The computer times it.
The test has been done umpteen times by umpteen people and 27 per cent show “a strong automatic preference for light skin compared to dark skin.” Another 27 per cent show “a moderate automatic preference for light skin compared to dark skin.”
Even if person doing the test has dark skin.
Best guess, our culture affects our unconscious. White hats are good guys, black hats are bad guys. See it often enough and it sticks. I still don’t want to believe it. But now I check the temperature of a drink when someone hands it to me.
Rick MacLean is an instructor in the journalism program at Holland College in Charlottetown.