I recently came across a 2008 lecture by Anthony Greenwald, who says he can tell you precisely how biased you are. Or more specifically, he developed a psychological test that measures unconscious associations. (You may have read this in Blink).
Greenwald uses the terms “Level 1″ and “Level 2″ to distinguish between deliberate, high-level thinking and automatic, unthinking behavior. We’re often on Level 2 auto-pilot, even when we think we’re in Level 1. For example, if asked how you’re doing, “Fine” might be a Level 2 response, whereas “The North Koreans are on to me” suggests Level 1 engagement. (In HTM parlance, Level 2 is the state when lower-level predictions are met.)
Next, Greenwald shows a cool optical illusion illustrating how context can create powerful, unconscious bias. In this image, squares A and B are exactly the same color (seriously):
Finally, he described the Implicit Association Test (IAT). In one test, you categorize pictures of light vs. dark skinned faces, then “good” vs. “bad” concepts (e.g., joy, love, agony, failure). Next they pair the categories. If it’s a light face or “bad” concept, press one key. If it’s a dark face or “good” concept press another. Then they switch the pairs.
Greenwald found significant differences in reaction time for different combinations (measured in milliseconds). He claims this represents unconscious bias: if two concepts are associated, you answer more quickly (responding at Level 2). Taking longer means your Level 1 brain needs to be engaged to overcome Level 2. The test has its critics as well as supporters (Greenwald’s responses can be found here). But it’s fascinating to go to the IAT website and test yourself.
I found my results to be…unsettling. Greenwald said that he’s taken the test hundreds of times and his biases have barely changed. Someone asked if one could become aware of when you were biased. Greenwald politely replied that, well, it wouldn’t be “unconscious” then would it?
I wonder if it’s fair to say that it only takes me a few hundred milliseconds to overcome my unconscious biases if I stop to think….