Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Implicit Assumptions

I've just completed an implicit associations test run by a bunch of psychologists at Harvard, Virginia and Washington.

These tests work by assuming that you are faster to sort things into disjunctive categories when the disjuncts are things you (perhaps implicitly) associate with each other. So for instance, in one of their more disturbing tests, it turns out most people are much faster at sorting things into the categories 'African American or bad' vs 'European American or good' than into the categories 'African American or good' vs 'European American or bad', which is taken as evidence of positive associations with the one race and negative associations with the other.

The one I got had to do with TV and books. The test was fun (if a bit predictable), but the result that was given to me at the end seemed to me to be a misreporting of what they could reasonably claim to have discovered. I turned out to be a little bit faster at sorting into 'books or good' vs 'TV or bad' than into 'books or bad' vs 'TV or good', and they concluded that I have a 'slight preference' for books over TV. But 'preference' looks like a really bad word to use here. On a natural reading of what they're claiming, it means that I prefer to spend my time reading books than watching TV. Whereas the most their test has shown is that books have more positive connotations for me than TV. These two things obviously come apart – people could, for instance, enjoy TV much more whilst thinking of it as a guilty pleasure because watching TV is mind-rotting while reading books is worthy and highbrow.

This bothered me just enough to make me send an email ...

I think it would have bothered me a lot more if I'd been given a different test; if, for instance, I had turned out to have more positive associations with European Americans than African Americans and they'd described me as 'preferring' European Americans. This, at least on its natural reading, would imply far more than they could claim to have established.


Ross Cameron said...

I was tested as to whether I preferred musicians over artists, but apparently I made too many mistakes for a result to be determined. Just like my papers . . .

Ross Cameron said...

Another weird thing about the test is that they seem to think that your attitude to a concept is somehow related to your attitutes concerning the words used to express that concept. I was asked how positive I felt about 'religion'. I don't relaly care one way or other about that word, to be honest. But I have lots of feelings about religion.

What an odd 'test'.

bloggin the Question said...

Would you admit to thinking that books are "better" than TV? Then the "slight preference" could be taken as a second order preference. I am in favour of a dispositional theory of value. "Good" is a relative term meaning that you would be disposed to prefer, or value something that was good over something that was not so good. The problem with using preference is that, as you point out, you may actually prefer watching TV to reading books while valueing time spent reading books more than time spent watching TV. Lewis and G.E.Moore "stop at the second rung" and say that what we value is what we desire to desire. It is clear that you desire to desire reading more than TV watching, otherwise why would TV watching be a "guilty pleasure". What is interesting about the post is the situation is reversed with the racial case. If I were to do a test and find that I had a slight preference for white Londoners over black Londoners I would be ashamed of the results and perhaps either not tell anyone, or dismiss the test as rubbish. In this (lets keep it hypothetical) case the test would pick up my first order preference but miss my second order preference. So I guess this does caste a methodological doubt over the test. Why does it pick up second order desires in the book/TV case, but first order desires in the Black/White case?
In defence of the test I guess that associations with "good" are aspirational. Many people who prefer TV to books aspire to prefering books to TV, so they think of books as better than TV. Whereas very few people aspire to being more racist than they actually are, so while associating defining attributes of their own race with the good, they will deny that they make these associations. What would be needed is a second test where the subject has to sort into TV or racist vs books or non racist and see if this is easier than books or racist vs TV or non racist.
I'd predict that many people would come out as "prefering" people of their own race to people of other races while prefering non racists to racists.
One could then prove that preference was not transitive by assuming that people who prefer their own race to other races were themselves racist and then getting them to sort attribute of self or good vs attribute of other or bad and see if this is easier than attribute of other or good vs attribute of self or bad. Someone is bound to come out as a racist who prefers non racists to racists but prefers self attributes to attributes of others.

bloggin the Question said...

Having now actually done the test I am much more sympathetic to your concerns. I did two, one trying to compare my associations with women vs men to good and bad. Turned out I had bad associations for both men and women, though worse for women. But the "bad" categories were on the right and bad women was on the top right so there may have been a straight forward explanation for why I pressed this button more quickly. Also they used "Awesome" for good and "Awful" for bad, which confused me. I think I clicked awesome women in the bad women category a few times, especially when it was Britney Spears.
The other test was the disjunction one that you did but for Meat vs vegetables. In made me laugh when they asked me for my gut reactions to vegetables and then asked me how, after a few minutes reflection I really felt about vegetables. How ridiculous! So I'm now in agreement with both Rose and Carrie that the test doesn't prove much, and what it does show is more likely to do with your reactions to words than to the things they represent.