FAQ about the “Good Hair” Study

What is an implicit attitude?

Psychologists have established that our attitudes manifest in two distinct cognitive pathways: explicit and implicit (Devine, Forscher, Austin, & Cox, 2012). Explicit attitudes are conscious judgments–essentially, the opinions we know we have. Implicit attitudes are automatic and involuntary–they cannot be actively controlled, and they often exist without our conscious awareness. Some people’s implicit and explicit attitudes are similar, but for most of us, our implicit attitudes are quite different from what we think we believe.


What is the Implicit Association Test (IAT)?

The Implicit Association Test (IAT; Greenwald et al., 1998, housed at https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/) is a computerized task that assesses implicit attitudes by measuring the respondent’s speed of association between images and words. The racial bias version of the IAT is the most famous and widely used version. It begins by showing the respondent images of black faces and white faces; the respondent is told to rapidly classify the images by pressing a designated key (e.g. the e key when a black face appears, the i key when a white face appears). In the next round, the respondent is told to classify words with positive and negative meaning (e.g. “terrific” and “nasty”) using the same keys (e.g. e for positive, i for negative). The respondent then completes a combined task, in which the words and images are presented sequentially, and they must assign them as taught in the previous tasks (i.e. e for black image or positive word, i for white image or negative word). In the second combined task, the opposite pairing is used (i.e. e for white or positive, i for black or negative).


The IAT measures the speed with which the respondent correctly associates the images and words, and the performances on the two combined tasks are compared. The basic psychology of the test is that the quicker the response, the closer the unconscious cognitive association between the word and the image. So, faster responses for the [white/positive & black/negative] task than the [black/positive & white/negative] task indicate a stronger association of the white image with positive meaning, demonstrating implicit negative bias toward the black image (Greenwald, Poehlman, Uhlmann, & Banaji, 2009).


There are various versions of the IAT (race, skin tone, age, gender, etc). You can take any of these IAT tasks at https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/


What is the Hair IAT?

The Hair IAT was created by Perception Institute to assess implicit attitudes toward black women’s hair. The Hair IAT is modeled off of the Implicit Association Test (IAT; Greenwald et al., 1998), which is the gold standard measure for implicit (unconscious) attitudes. The Hair IAT is similar to the race version of the IAT (described above), but instead of seeing black or white faces, respondents see images of the same black woman with either textured or smooth hairstyles. The test measures the speed of association between pleasant/unpleasant words with textured or smooth hairstyles. Faster association between pleasant words and smooth hairstyles (or unpleasant words with textured hairstyles) indicates an implicit bias against textured hair. 

You can take the Hair IAT here.


How do you know the Implicit Association Test (IAT) actually assesses implicit attitudes?

The IAT is designed to assess implicit, rather than explicit (self-reported), attitudes. Hundreds of studies have shown that IAT results differ from participants’ self-reported opinions, so we know it is getting at something different than explicit attitudes. Importantly, IAT scores have been shown to be better predictors of people’s behavior than their stated attitudes–this suggests that the IAT is actually capturing automatic biases, which affect our behavior without our intention.


Can someone fake their IAT score?

Studies have shown that IAT results cannot be faked. The creators of the Implicit Association Test (IAT) conducted a study in which they asked participants to fake positive attitudes; the participants’ scores were no different than when they were not given those instructions (Greenwald et al., 2009). Participants must take the test quickly (trials that are too slow are removed), which requires use of unconscious processes.


I don’t believe the results.

The Implicit Association Test (IAT) is the most widely used tool to evaluate implicit biases, and has been validated through hundreds of studies, related to race, gender, age, body size, and other markers of social stratification. The results are often surprising to people because for many of us, our implicit attitudes are different than our explicit attitudes. The IAT is not meant to be a diagnosis — it is simply a tool to demonstrate the presence of biases and affirm that implicit biases have a meaningful impact on our decision-making and behavior.