The Junk Science behind ‘Unconscious Bias’ Studies

by Roger Clegg

The claim that unconscious bias is everywhere is, well, everywhere these days. But Andrew Ferguson has an excellent article about problems with replicability in the behavioral sciences generally and with unconscious bias in particular. Here’s what he has to say on the latter:

Perhaps most consequentially, replications failed to validate many uses of the Implicit Association Test, which is the most popular research tool in social psychology. Its designers say the test detects unconscious biases, including racial biases, that persistently drive human behavior. Sifting data from the IAT, social scientists tell us that at least 75 percent of white Americans are racist, whether they know it or not, even when they publicly disavow racial bigotry. This implicit racism induces racist behavior as surely as explicit racism. The paper introducing the IAT’s application to racial attitudes has been cited in more than 6,600 studies, according to Google Scholar. The test is commonly used in courts and classrooms across the country. 

That the United States is in the grip of an epidemic of implicit racism is simply taken for granted by social psychologists​—​another settled fact too good to check. Few of them have ever returned to the original data. Those who have done so have discovered that the direct evidence linking IAT results to specific behavior is in fact negligible, with small samples and weak effects that have seldom if ever been replicated. One team of researchers went through the IAT data on racial attitudes and behavior and concluded there wasn’t much evidence either way. 

“The broad picture that emerges from our reanalysis,” they wrote, “is that the published results [confirming the IAT and racism] are likely to be conditional and fragile and do not permit broad conclusions about the prevalence of discriminatory tendencies in American society.” Their debunking paper, “Strong Claims and Weak Evidence,” has been cited in fewer than 100 studies.

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