The Race Implicit Association Test Is Biased

This is a preprint (not yet submitted to a journal) of a manuscript that examines the validity of the race IAT as a measure of in-group and out-group attitudes for African and White Americans. We show that research on intergroup relationships and attitudes benefits from insights (insights by means of being inside the experience) by African Americans that are often ignored by White psychologists.

The Race Implicit Association Test is Biased: Most African Americans Have Positive Attitudes Towards Their In-Group

Ulrich Schimmack
University of Toronto Mississauga

Alicia Howard
Music Wellbeing

Abstract

Explicit ratings of attitudes show a preference for the in-group for African Americans and White participants. However, the average score of African Americans on the race Implicit Association Test is close to zero. This finding has been interpreted as evidence that many African Americans have unconsciously internalized negative attitudes towards their group. We conducted a multi-method study of this hypothesis with various implicit measures (Single-Target IAT, Evaluative Priming, Affective Misattribution Procedure) that distinguish between in-group and out-group attitudes. Our main finding is that African Americans have positive attitudes towards their in-group on a latent factor that reflects the valid variance across measures. In addition, the race IAT scores of African Americans are unrelated to in-group and out-group attitudes. Moreover, White American’s race IAT scores are biased and exaggerate in-group preferences. These findings are discussed in terms of the unique aspects of the race IAT that may activate cultural stereotypes. The results have ethical implications for the practice of providing individuals with feedback about their unconscious biases with an invalid measure. It is harmful to African Americans to suggest that they unconsciously dislike African Americans and to exaggerate prejudice of White Americans. Ongoing discrimination may be better explained by explicit prejudice of a minority of White Americans than pervasive, uncontrollable implicit biases of most White Americans.

Introduction

With 1,277 citations in WebOfScience, Jost, Banaji, and Nosek’s (2004) article “A Decade of System Justification Theory: Accumulated Evidence of Conscious and Unconscious Bolstering of the Status Quo” is easily the most cited article in the journal Political Psychology. The second most cited article has less than half the number of citations (523 citations). The abstract of this influential article states the authors’ main thesis clearly and succinctly. They postulate a general motive to support the existing social order. This motive contributes to internalization of inferiority of disadvantaged groups. Most important for this article is the claim that this internalization of inferiority is “observed most readily at an implicit, nonconscious level of awareness” (p. 881).

The theory is broadly applied to a wide range of stigmatized groups and its validity has to be evaluated for each group individually. Our focus is on the African American community. Jost et al. (2004) assume that system justification theory is applicable to African Americans because they show different evaluations of their in-group on explicit measures and on the Implicit Association Test (IAT; Greenwald, McGhee, & Schwartz, 1998). On explicit measures, like the feeling thermometer, African Americans show higher in-group favoritism than White Americans (standardized mean differences d = .8 vs. .6). However, IAT scores show greater in-group favoritism for White Americans than for African Americans (d = .9 vs. 0).  IAT scores close to zero for African Americans have been interpreted as evidence that “sizable proportions of members of disadvantaged groups – often 40% to 50% or even more exhibit implicit (or indirect) biases against their own group and in favor of more advantaged groups” (Jost, 2019, p. 277).

This pattern of results is based on large samples and has been replicated in several studies. Thus, we are not questioning the empirical facts. Our concern is that Jost and colleagues misinterpret these results. In the early 2000s, it was common to assume that explicit and implicit group evaluations reflect different constructs (Nosek, Greenwald, & Banaji, 2005). This dual-attitude model allows for different evaluations of the in-group at a conscious and an unconscious level. Evidence for this model rested mostly on the finding that race IAT scores and self-ratings are only weekly correlated, r ~ .2 (Hofmann, Gawronski, Gschwendner, Le, & Schmitt, 2005). However, these studies did not correct for measurement error. After correcting for measurement error, the correlation increases to r = .8 (Schimmack, 2021a). The race IAT also has little incremental predictive validity over explicit measures (Schimmack, 2021b). This new evidence renders it less likely that explicit and implicit attitudes can diverge. In fact, there exists no evidence that attitudes are hidden from consciousness. Thus, there may be an alternative explanation for African Americans’ scores on the race IAT.

White Psychologists’ Theorizing about African Americans

Before we propose an alternative explanation for African Americans’ neutral scores on the race IAT, we would like to make the observation that Jost et al.’s (2004) claims about African Americans follow a long tradition of psychological research on African Americans by mostly White psychologists. Often this research ignores the lived experience of African Americans, which often leads to false claims (cf. Adams, 2010). For example, since the beginning of psychology, White psychologists assumed that African Americans have low self-esteem and proposed several theories for this seemingly obvious fact. However, in 1986 Rosenberg ironically pointed out that “everything stands solidly in support of this conclusion except the facts.” Since then, decades of research have shown that African Americans have the same or even higher self-esteem than White Americans (Twenge & Crocker, 2002). Just like White theorists’ claims about self-esteem, Jost et al.’s claims about African Americans’ unconscious are removed from African Americans’ own understanding of their culture and identity and disconnected from other findings that are in conflict with the theory’s predictions. The only empirical support for the theory is the neutral score of African Americans on the race IAT.

African American’s Resilience in a Culture of Oppression

We are skeptical about the claim that most African-Americans secretly favor the out-group based on the lived experience of the second author. Alicia Howard is an African-American from a predominantly White, small town in Kentucky. She grew up surrounded by a large family and attended a Black church. Her identity was shaped by role-models from this Black in-group and not by some idealized abstract image of the White out-group. Also, contrary to the famous doll-studies from the 1960s, she had White and Black dolls and got excited when a new Black doll came out. Alicia studied classical music at the historically Black college and university Kentucky State University. Even though her admired composers like Rachmaninov were White, she looked up to Black classical musicians like Andre Watts, Kathleen Battle, Leontyne Price, and Jesse Norman as role models. It is of course possible that her experiences are unique and not representative of African-Americans. However, no one in her family or among her Black friends showed signs that they preferred to be White or liked White people more than Black people. In small towns, the lives of Black and White people are also more similar than in big cities. Therefore, the White out-group was not all that different from the Black in-group. Although there are Black individuals who seem to struggle with their Black identity, there are also White people who suffer from White guilt or assume a Black identity for other reasons. Thus, from an African American perspective, system justification theory does not seem to characterize most African Americans’ attitudes to their in-group.

The Race IAT Could Be Biased

We are not the first to note that the race IAT may not be a pure measure of attitudes (Olson & Fazio, 2004). The nature of the task may activate cultural stereotypes that are normally not activated when African Americans interact with each other. As a result, the mean score of African Americans on the race IAT may be shifted towards a pro-White bias because negative cultural stereotypes persist in US American culture. The same influence of cultural stereotypes would also enhance the pro-White bias for White Americans. Thus, an alternative explanation for the greater in-group bias for White Americans than for African Americans on the race IAT is that attitudes and cultural stereotypes act together for White Americans, whereas they act in opposite directions for African Americans.

One way to test this hypothesis is to examine in-group biases with alternative implicit measures that do not activate stereotypes. The most widely used alternative implicit measures are the Affective Misattribution Procedure (AMP; Payne, Cheng, Govorun, & Stewart, 2005) and the evaluative priming task (EPT, Fazio, Jackson, Dunton, & Williams, 2005). Only recently it has been noted that these implicit measures produce different results (Teige-Mocigemba, Becker, Sherman, Reichardt, & Klauer, 2017). A study in the United States, examined the differences between African American and White respondents on three implicit measures (Figure 1, Bar-Anan & Nosek, 2014).

Known-group differences are much more pronounced for the race IAT than the other two implicit tasks. The authors interpret this finding as evidence that the race IAT has higher validity. That is, under the assumption that (mostly) White participants have a strong preference for their in-group, a positive mean is predicted, and the more positive the mean is, the more valid a measure is. However, alternative explanations are possible. One alternative explanation is that only the race IAT activates cultural stereotypes and produces a high pro-White mean as a result. In contrast, the other tasks are better measures of attitudes and the results show that prejudice is much less pronounced than the race IAT suggests. That is, the race IAT is biased because it activates cultural stereotypes that are not automatically activated with other implicit tasks.

Another limitation of the race IAT is that preferences for the in-group and the out-group are confounded. In contrast, the other two tasks can be scored separately to obtain measures of the strength of preferences for the in-group and the out-group. This is particularly helpful to make sense of the neutral score of African Americans on the race IAT. One explanation for a weaker in-group bias is simply that African Americans are less biased against the out-group than White Americans. Thus, a better test of African Americans’ attitudes towards their own group is to examine how positive or negative African American’s responses are to African American stimuli.

In short, published studies reveal that different implicit tasks produce different results and that the race IAT shows stronger pro-White biases than other tasks. However, it has not been systematically explored whether this finding reveals higher or lower validity of the race IAT. We used Bar-Anan and Nosek’s (2014) data to explore this question.

Method

Data

The data are based on a voluntary online sample. The total sample size is large (N = 23,413).  However, participants completed only some of the tasks that included implicit measures of political orientation and self-esteem. Table 1 shows the number of African American and White participants for six measures.

Measures

Race IAT.  The race IAT is the standard Implicit Association Test, although the specific stimuli that represent the African American group and the White American group were different. However, this does not appear to have influenced responses as seen by similar means for African American and White American participants.  The race IAT was scored so that higher values represented a pro-White bias for White participants and a pro-Black bias for Black participants.

Single Target IAT. The single-target IAT (ST-IAT) is a variation of the race IAT. The main difference is that participants only have to classify one racial group along with classifications of positive and negative stimuli. As a result, the ST-IAT reflects only evaluations of one group and provides distinct information about evaluations of the in-group and out-group. It is particularly interesting how Black participants perform on the in-group ST-IAT with Black targets. System justification theory predicts a score close to zero that would reflect an over all neutral attitude and at least 50% of participants who may hold negative views of the in-group. 

Evaluative Priming Task. The Evaluative Priming Task (EPT) was developed by Fazio et al. (1995). In a practice block, participants classified words as “good” or “bad.” In the next three blocks, target stimuli were primed with pictures of African American and White Americans. In-group bias was the response time to same-group primes for negative words minus response times to same-group primes for positive words. Out-group bias was the response time to other-group primes for negative words minus response times to other-group primes for positive words.

Affective Misattribution Procedure. The Affective Misattribution was invented by Payne et al. (2005). Pictures of African Americans or White Americans are quickly followed by a Chinese character and a mask. Participants are instructed to rate the Chinese character as more or less pleasant than the average Chinese character. They were instructed not to let the pictures influence their evaluation of the target stimuli. The in-group score was the percentage of more pleasant responses after an in-group picture. The out-group score was the percentage of more pleasant responses after an out-group picture.

Feeling Thermometer. Self-reports of in-group and out-group attitudes were measured with feeling thermometers. Participants rated how warm or cold they feel toward the in-group and the out-group on an 11-point scale ranging from 0 = coldest feelings to 10 = warmest feelings.

For all measures, participants scores were divided by the standard deviation so that means can be interpreted as standardized effect sizes assuming that a mean of zero reflects a neutral attitude, positive scores reflect positive attitudes, and negative scores reflect negative attitudes.

Results

The data were analyzed using structural equation modeling with MPLUS8.2 (Muthen & Muthen (2017), A multi-group model was specified with African Americans and White Americans as separate groups. The model was developed iteratively using the data. Thus, all results are exploratory and require validation in a separate sample. Due to the small number of Black participants, it was not possible to cross-validate the model with half of the sample. Moreover, tests of group differences have low power and a study with a larger sample of African Americans is needed to test equivalence of parameters. Cherry picking of data, models, and references undermines psychological science. To avoid this problem, we also constructed a model that assumes some implicit measures are biased and inflate in-group attitudes of African Americans. To identify the means of the latent in-group and out-group factors, we chose the single-target IAT because it shows the least positive attitudes of African Americans towards their in-group. We then freed other parameters to maximize model fit.

Preferred Model

Overall fit of the final model meets standard fit criteria (RMSEA < .06, CFI > .95), CFI (78) = 133.37, RMSEA = .012, 90%CI = .009 to .016, CFI = .981. However, models with low coverage (many missing data) may overestimate model fit. A follow-up study that administers all tasks to all participants should be conducted to provide a stronger test of the model. Nevertheless, the model is parsimonious and there were no modification indices greater than 20. This suggests that there are no major discrepancies between the model and the data.

Figure 2 shows a measurement of attitudes towards the in-group and out-group. The key unobserved variables in this model are the attitude towards the in-group factor (ig) and the attitude towards the out-group factor (og). Each construct is measured with four indicators, namely scores on the single-target IAT (satig/satog), scores on the evaluative priming task (epig, epog), scores on the affective misattribution procedure (ampig/ampog), and scores on the explicit feeling thermometer ratings (thermoig/thermoog). For ease of interpretation, Figure 2 shows standardized coefficients that range from -1 to 1.

The first finding is that loadings of the measures on the IG factor (.3-.4) and on the outgroup factor (.4) are modest. They suggest that less than 20% of the variance in a single measure is valid variance. However, the model clearly identified latent factors that show individual differences in attitudes towards in-group and out-group for Black and White Americans. The second noteworthy finding is that loadings for African Americans and White Americans were similar. Thus, the multi-method measurement model was able to identify variation in in-group and out-group attitudes for both groups.

A third finding is that for White participants.54^2 = 29% of the variance in race IAT reflects attitudes towards African Americans (i.e., prejudice). This is a bit higher than previous estimates, which were in the 10% to 20% range (Schimmack, 2021). However, the lower limit of the 95%CI overlapped with this range of possible values, .43^2 = 18%.

Most important is the finding that race IAT scores for African Americans were unrelated to the attitudes towards the in-group and out-group factors. Thus, scores on the race IAT do not appear to be valid measures of African Americans’ attitudes. This finding has important implications for Jost et al.’s (2021) reliance on race IAT scores to make inferences about African Americans’ unconscious attitudes towards their in-group. This interpretation assumed that race IAT scores do provide valid information about African American’s attitudes towards the in-group, but no evidence for this assumption was provided. The present results show 20 years later that this fundamental assumption is wrong. The race-IAT does not provide information about African Americans’ attitudes towards the in-group as reflected in other implicit measures.

An additional interesting finding was that in-group and out-group attitudes were unrelated. This suggests that prejudice does not enhance pro-White attitudes for White participants. It also suggests that Black pride does not have to devalue the White outgroup.

Finally, the model shows that three methods show strong method variance. All three methods measured in-group and out-group attitudes within a single experimental block. The main difference is the single-target IAT that is conducted once with one target (Black) and once with the other target (White). Separating the assessment of in-group and out-group attitudes for the other tasks might reduce the amount of systematic measurement error. However, less systematic measurement error does not seem to translate into more valid variance as the single-target IAT was not more valid than the other measures. The results for the commonly used feeling thermometer are particularly noteworthy. While this measure shows some modest validity, the present results also show that this single-item measure has poor psychometric properties. An important goal for future research is to develop more valid measures of attitudes towards in-groups and out-groups. Until then, researchers should use a multi-method approach.  

Figure 3 shows the model for the means. While standardized coefficients are easier to interpret for the measurement model, means are easier to interpret in the units of the measures, which were scaled so that means can be interpreted as Cohen’s d values.

The most important finding is that African Americans’ mean for the in-group factor is positive, d = 1.07, 95%CI = 0.98 to 1.16. Thus, the data provide no support for the claim that most African Americans evaluate their in-group negatively. With a normal distribution centered at 1.07, only 14% of African Americans would have a negative (below 0) attitude towards the in-group. White Americans also show a positive evaluation of the in-group, but to a lesser extent, d = 0.62; 95%CI = 0.58, 0.66. The confidence intervals are tight and clearly do not overlap, and constraining these two coefficients to be equal reduced model fit, chi2(79) = 228.43, ?chi2(1) = 95.06, p = 1.85e-22.  Thus, this model suggests that African Americans have an even more positive attitude towards their in-group than White Americans.

As expected, out-group attitudes are less positive than in-group attitudes for both groups. Also expected was the finding that out-group attitudes of African Americans, d = .42, 95%CI , are more favorable than out-group attitudes of White Americans, d = .20, 95%CI. However, even White Americans’ out-group attitudes are on average positive. This finding is in marked contrast to the common finding with the race IAT that most White Americans show a pronounced pro-White bias, which has often been interpreted as evidence of widespread prejudice. However, this interpretation is problematic for two reasons. First, it confounds in-group and out-group attitudes. Prejudice is defined as White American’s attitude towards African Americans. The race IAT is not a direct measure of prejudice because it measures relative preferences. Of course, in-group favoritism alone can lead to discrimination and racial disparities when one group is dominant, but these consequences can occur without actual prejudice against African Americans. The present results suggest that African American also have an in-group bias. Thus, it is important to distinguish between in-group favoritism, which applies to both groups, from prejudice which applies uniquely to White Americans towards African Americans.

The bigger problem for the race IAT is that White Americans’ scores on the race IAT are systematically biased towards a pro-White score, d = .78, whereas African Americans’ scores are only slightly biased towards a pro-Black score, d = -.19. This finding shows that IAT scores provide misleading information about the amount of in-group favoritism. Thus, support for the system justification theory rests on a measurement artifact.

Alternative Model

It is possible that our modeling decisions exaggerated the positivity of African Americans’ in-group attitudes. To address this concern, we tried to find an alternative model that fits the data with the lowest amount of African American’s in-group bias. This alternative model fit the data as well as our preferred model, CFI (77) = 134.24, RMSEA = .013, 90%CI = .009 to .016, CFI = .980. Thus, the data cannot distinguish between these two models. The covariance structure was identical. Thus, we only present the means structure of the model (Figure 4).

The main difference between the models is that African Americans’ attitudes towards the ingroup are less favorable (d = 1.07 vs. d = .54). The discrepancy is explained by the assumptions that African Americans have a positive bias on the feeling-thermometer and by assuming that African Americans’ responses to White targets on the AMP are negatively biased (ampog = -.72). The most important finding is that African Americans’ in-group attitudes remain positive, d = .54, although they are now slightly less favorable than White Americans’ in-group attitudes, d = .62.  

Proponents of system justification theory might argue that attitudes towards the in-group have to be evaluated in relative terms. Viewed from this perspective, the results still show relatively more in-group favoritism for White Americans, d = .62 – .20 = .42 than African Americans, d = .54 – .40 = .14. However, out-group attitudes contribute more to this difference, d = .40 = .20 = .20, than in-group differences, d = .62 – .54 = .08. Thus, one reason for the difference in relative preferences is that African Americans attitudes towards Whites are more positive than White Americans’ attitudes towards African Americans. It would be a mistake to interpret this difference in evaluations of the out-group as evidence that African Americans have internalized negative stereotypes about their in-group.

The alternative model does not alter the fact that scores on the race IAT are biased and provide misleading information about in-group and out-group attitudes.

Discussion

After its introduction in 1998, the Implicit Association Test has been quickly accepted as a valid measure of attitudes that individuals are unwilling or unable to report on self-report measures. Mean scores of White Americans were interpreted as evidence that prejudice is much more widespread and severe than self-report measures suggest. Mean scores of African Americans were interpreted as evidence of unconscious self-loathing. The present results suggest that millions of African American and White visitors of the Project Implicit website were given false feedback about their attitudes. For White Americans, the race IAT does appear to reflect individual differences in out-group attitudes (prejudice). However, the scoring of the IAT in terms of deviations from a value of zero is invalid because the mean is biased towards pro-White scores. Even the amount of valid variation is modest and insufficient to provide individualized feedback.

Implications for African American’s In-Group and Out-Group Attitudes

Our investigation started with the surprising suggestions that African Americans are motivated to justify racism and are supposed to have internalized negative stereotypes and attitudes towards their group. This view of African Americans is detached from their history and evidence of high self-esteem among African Americans. The only evidence for this claim was the finding that African Americans do not show a strong in-group preference on the race IAT.

Our results suggest that this finding is due to the low validity of the race IAT as a measure of African Americans’ attitudes. African American’s race IAT scores were unrelated to their in-group attitudes and out-group attitudes as measured by other measures, including the single-target variant of the IAT.

This raises the question in which way the race IAT differs from other measures. We are not the first to suggest that the race IAT activates negative cultural stereotypes (Olson & Fazio, 2004). These stereotypes are known to African Americans and may influence their performance on the IAT, even if African Americans do not endorse these stereotypes and these stereotypes are rarely activated in real life. Thus, the mean close to zero may not reflect the fact that 50% of African Americans have negative attitudes towards their group. Rather, it is possible that the neutral score reflects a balanced influence of positive attitudes and negative stereotypes.

Another noteworthy difference between other implicit tasks and the race IAT is that other tasks rely on pictures of individual members to elicit a valenced response. In contrast, the race IAT focuses on the evaluation of the abstract category “Black.” It is possible that African Americans have more positive attitudes to (pictures of) members of the group than to the concept of being “Black,” which is a fuzzy category at best. Similarly, old people seem to have a negative attitude to the concept of being “old,” but this does not imply that they do not like old people. This has important implications for the predictive validity of the IAT. In everyday life, we encounter individuals and not abstract categories. Thus, even if the race IAT were a valid measure of attitudes towards abstract categories, it would be a weak predictor of actual behaviors.

In sum, the only empirical support for system justification theory was African Americans’ neutral score on the race IAT. We show that the race IAT lacks validity and that African Americans have positive attitudes towards their in-group on all other measures. We also find that they have positive attitudes towards the White outgroup. This has important implications for the assessment of racial attitudes of White participants. If most White participants have negative attitudes towards Black people and these attitudes consistently influence White Americans behaviors, African Americans would experience discrimination from most White Americans. In this case, we would expect negative attitudes towards the out-group. As the data show, this is not the case. This does not mean that discrimination is rare. Rather, it is possible that most acts of discrimination are committed by a relatively small group of White Americans (Campbell & Brauer, 2021).

Implications for White American’s In-Group and Out-Group Attitudes

Banaji and Greenwald’s (2013) popular book was largely responsible for claims that implicit bias is real, widespread, and explains racial discrimination. The book ends with several conclusions. Two conclusions are widely accepted among social psychologists and a majority of US Americans, namely Black disadvantage exists and racial discrimination at least partially contributes to this disadvantage. However, other conclusions were not generally accepted and were not clearly supported by evidence, namely attitudes have both reflective and automatic form, people are often unaware of their automatic attitudes, and implicit bias is pervasive, and implicit racial attitudes contribute to discrimination against Black Americans. The claim that implicit biases are widespread was based entirely on the finding that 75% of US Americans show a clear pro-White bias on the race IAT. The present results suggest that this finding is unique to the race IAT and not found with other implicit measures.

Once more, we are not the first to point out that scoring of the race IAT may have exaggerated the pervasiveness of racial biases among White Americans (Blanton et al., 2006, 2009, 2015; Oswald et al., 2013, 2015). However, so far this criticism has fallen on deaf ears and Project Implicit continues to provide individuals with feedback about their race IAT scores. Textbooks proudly point out that over 20 million people have received this feedback, as if this number says something about the validity of the test (Myers & Twenge, 2019).

When visitors might see a discrepancy between their self-views and the test scores, they are informed that this does not invalidate the test because it measures something that is hidden from self-knowledge. The present results suggest that many visitors of the Project Implicit website were given false feedback about their prejudices because even individuals without any negative attitudes towards African Americans end up with a pro-White bias on the race IAT.

This bias can co-exist with evidence that variation in race IAT scores shows some convergent validity with other explicit and implicit measures of individual differences in attitudes towards African Americans. However, variances and means are two independent statistical constructs, and valid variance does not imply that means are valid. Nosek and Bar-Anan (2014) argued that the race IAT is the most valid measure of attitudes because it shows the largest differences in scores between African Americans and White Americans. However, this argument is only valid, if we assume that random measurement error attenuates the differences on other measures. The present study directly tested this assumption and found no evidence for the assumption. Instead, we found that the larger differences between African Americans and White Americans reflects some systematic mean differences that are unique to the race IAT. As noted earlier, a plausible explanation for this systematic bias is that the race IAT activates stereotypes, whereas other measures are purer measures of attitudes.

We hope that our direct demonstration of bias will finally end the practice of providing visitors of the Project Implicit website with misleading information about the validity of the race IAT and misleading information about individuals’ prejudice. There is simply no evidence that prejudice is hidden from honest self-reflection or that such hidden biases are revealed by the race IAT (Schimmack, 2021).

Implications for Future Research

Although our article focuses on the race IAT, the results also have implications for the use and interpretation of the other measures. One advantage of the other measures is that they provide separate information about in-group and out-group attitudes because they avoid the pitting of one group against the other. However, these measures have other problems. Fast reactions to pictures of African Americans and White Americans reflect only first impressions without context. They are also influenced by affective reactions to other aspects such as gender, age, or attractiveness. Thus, these scores may not reflect other aspects of attitudes that are activated in specific contexts. Moreover, the means will depend heavily on the selection of individual pictures. Thus, a lot more work would need to be done to ensure that the picture sets are representative of the whole group. Finally, our results showed that none of the measures had high loadings on the attitude factors. Thus, a single measure has only modest validity.

Unfortunately, psychologists often do not carefully examine the psychometric properties of their measures. Instead, one measure is often arbitrarily chosen and treated as if it were a perfect measure of a construct. Even worse, a specific measure may be chosen from a set of measures because it showed the desired result (John, Loewenstein, & Prelec, 2012). To avoid these problems, we strongly urge intergroup relationship researchers to use a multi-method approach and to use formal measurement models to analyze their data (Schimmack, 2021). This approach will also produce better estimates of effect sizes that are attenuated by random and systematic measurement error.

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Reevaluating the Predictive Validity of the Race Implicit Association Test

Over the past two decades, social psychological research on prejudice has been dominated by the implicit cognition paradigm (Meissner, Grigutsch, Koranyi, Müller, & Rothermund, 2019). This paradigm is based on the assumption that many individuals of the majority group (e.g., White US Americans) have an automatic tendency to discriminate against members of a stigmatized minority group (e.g., African Americans). It is assumed that this tendency is difficult to control because many people are unaware of their prejudices.

The implicit cognition paradigm also assumes that biases vary across individuals of the majority group. The most widely used measure of individual differences in implicit biases is the race Implicit Association Test (rIAT; Greenwald, McGhee, & Schwartz, 1998). Like any other measure of individual differences, the race IAT has to meet psychometric criteria to be a useful measure of implicit bias. Unfortunately, the race IAT has been used in hundreds of studies before its psychometric properties were properly evaluated in a program of validation research (Schimmack, 2021a, 2021b).

Meta-analytic reviews of the literature suggest that the race IAT is not as useful for the study of prejudice as it was promised to be (Greenwald et al., 1998). For example, Meissner et al. (2019) concluded that “the predictive value for behavioral criteria is weak and their incremental validity over and above self-report measures is negligible” (p. 1).

In response to criticism of the race IAT, Greenwald, Banaji, and Nosek (2015) argued that “statistically small effects of the implicit association test can have societally large effects” (p. 553). At the same time, Greenwald (1975) warned psychologists that they may be prejudiced against the null-hypothesis. To avoid this bias, he proposed that researchers should define a priori a range of effect sizes that are close enough to zero to decide in favor of the null-hypothesis. Unfortunately, Greenwald did not follow his own advice and a clear criterion for a small, but practically significant amount of predictive validity is lacking. This is a problem because estimates have decreased over time from r = .39 (McConnell & Leibold, 2001), to r = .24 in 2009 ( Greenwald, Poehlman, Uhlmann, and Banaji, 2009), to r = .148 in 2013 (Oswald, Mitchell, Blanton, Jaccard, & Tetlock (2013), and r = .097 in 2019 (Greenwald & Lai, 2020; Kurdi et al., 2019). Without a clear criterion value, it is not clear how this new estimate of predictive validity should be interpreted. Does it still provide evidence for a small, but practically significant effect, or does it provide evidence for the null-hypothesis (Greenwald, 1975)?

Measures are not Causes

To justify the interpretation of a correlation of r = .1 as small but important, it is important to revisit Greenwald et al.’s (2015) arguments for this claim. Greenwald et al. (2015) interpret this correlation as evidence for an effect of the race IAT on behavior. For example, they write “small effects can produce substantial discriminatory impact also by cumulating over repeated occurrences to the same person” (p. 558). The problem with this causal interpretation of a correlation between two measures is that scores on the race IAT have no influence on individuals’ behavior. This simple fact is illustrated in Figure 1. Figure 1 is a causal model that assumes the race IAT reflects valid variance in prejudice and prejudice influences actual behaviors (e.g., not voting for a Black political candidate). The model makes it clear that the correlation between scores on the race IAT (i.e., the iat box) and scores on a behavioral measures (i.e., the crit box) do not have a causal link (i.e., no path leads from the iat box to the crit box). Rather, the two measured variables are correlated because they both reflect the effect of a third variable. That is, prejudice influences race IAT scores and prejudice influences the variance in the criterion variable.

There is general consensus among social scientists that prejudice is a problem and that individual differences in prejudice have important consequences for individuals and society. The effect size of prejudice on a single behavior has not been clearly examined, but to the extent that race IAT scores are not perfectly valid measures of prejudice, the simple correlation of r = .1 is a lower limit of the effect size. Schimmack (2021) estimated that no more than 20% of the variance in race IAT scores is valid variance. With this validity coefficient, a correlation of r = .1 implies an effect of prejudice on actual behaviors of .1 / sqrt(.2) = .22.

Greenwald et al. (2015) correctly point out that effect sizes of this magnitude, r ~ .2, can have practical, real-world implications. The real question, however, is whether predictive validity of .1 justifies the use of the race IAT as a measure of prejudice. This question has to be evaluated in a comparison of predictive validity for the race IAT with other measures of prejudice. Thus, the real question is whether the race IAT has sufficient incremental predictive validity over other measures of prejudice. However, this question has been largely ignored in the debate about the utility of the race IAT (Greenwald & Lai, 2020; Greenwald et al., 2015; Oswald et al., 2013).

Kurdi et al. (2019) discuss incremental predictive validity, but this discussion is not limited to the race IAT and makes the mistake to correct for random measurement error. As a result, the incremental predictive validity for IATs of b = .14 is a hypothetical estimate for IATs that are perfectly reliable. However, it is well-known that IATs are far from perfectly reliable. Thus, this estimate overestimates the incremental predictive validity. Using Kurdi et al.’s data and limiting the analysis to studies with the race IAT, I estimated incremental predictive validity to be b = .08, 95%CI = .04 to .12. It is difficult to argue that this a practically significant amount of incremental predictive validity. At the very least, it does not justify the reliance on the race IAT as the only measure of prejudice or the claim that the race IAT is a superior measure of prejudice (Greenwald et al., 2009).

The meta-analytic estimate of b = .1 has to be interpreted in the context of evidence of substantial heterogeneity across studies (Kurdi et al., 2019). Kurdi et al. (2019) suggest that “it may be more appropriate to ask under what conditions the two [race IAT scores and criterion variables] are more or less highly correlated” (p. 575). However, little progress has been made in uncovering moderators of predictive validity. One possible explanation for this is that previous meta-analysis may have overlooked one important source of variation in effect sizes, namely publication bias. Traditional meta-analyses may be unable to reveal publication bias because they include many articles and outcome measures that did not focus on predictive validity. For example, Kurdi’s meta-analysis included a study by Luo, Li, Ma, Zhang, Rao, and Han (2015). The main focus of this study was to examine the potential moderating influence of oxytocin on neurological responses to pain expressions of Asian and White faces. Like many neurological studies, the sample size was small (N = 32), but the study reported 16 brain measures. For the meta-analysis, correlations were computed across N = 16 participants separately for two experimental conditions. Thus, this study provided as many effect sizes as it had participants. Evidently, power to obtain a significant result with N = 16 and r = .1 is extremely low, and adding these 32 effect sizes to the meta-analysis merely introduced noise. This may undermine the validity of meta-analytic results ((Sharpe, 1997). To address this concern, I conducted a new meta-analysis that differs from the traditional meta-analyses. Rather than coding as many effects from as many studies as possible, I only include focal hypothesis tests from studies that aimed to investigate predictive validity. I call this a focused meta-analysis.

Focused Meta-Analysis of Predictive Validity

Coding of Studies

I relied on Kurdi et al.’s meta-analysis to find articles. I selected only published articles that used the race IAT (k = 96). The main purpose of including unpublished studies is often to correct for publication bias (Kurdi et al., 2019). However, it is unlikely that only 14 (8%) studies that were conducted remained unpublished. Thus, the unpublished studies are not representative and may distort effect size estimates.

Coding of articles in terms of outcome measures that reflect discrimination yielded 60 studies in 45 articles. I examined whether this selection of studies influenced the results by limiting a meta-analysis with Kurdi et al.’s coding of studies to these 60 articles. The weighted average effect size was larger than the reported effect size, a = .167, se = .022, 95%CI = .121 to .212. Thus, Kurdi et al.’s inclusion of a wide range of studies with questionable criterion variables diluted the effect size estimate. However, there remained substantial variability around this effect size estimate using Kurdi et al.’s data, I2 = 55.43%.

Results

The focused coding produced one effect-size per study. It is therefore not necessary to model a nested structure of effect sizes and I used the widely used metafor package to analyze the data (Viechtbauer, 2010). The intercept-only model produced a similar estimate to the results for Kurdi et al.’s coding scheme, a = .201, se = .020, 95%CI = .171 to .249. Thus, focal coding does seem to produce the same effect size estimate as traditional coding. There was also a similar amount of heterogeneity in the effect sizes, I2 = 50.80%.

However, results for publication bias differed. Whereas Kurdi et al.’s coding shows no evidence of publication bias, focused coding produced a significant relationship emerged, b = 1.83, se = .41, z = 4.54, 95%CI = 1.03 to 2.64. The intercept was no longer significant, a = .014, se = .0462, z = 0.31, 95%CI = -.077 to 95%CI = .105. This would imply that the race IAT has no incremental predictive validity. Adding sampling error as a predictor reduced heterogeneity from I2 = 50.80% to 37.71%. Thus, some portion of the heterogeneity is explained by publication bias.

Stanley (2017) recommends to accept the null-hypothesis when the intercept in the previous model is not significant. However, a better criterion is to compare this model to other models. The most widely used alternative model regresses effect sizes on the squared sampling error (Stanley, 2017). This model explained more of the heterogeneity in effect sizes as reflected in a reduction of unexplained heterogeneity from 50.80% to 23.86%. The intercept for this model was significant, a = .113, se = .0232, z = 4.86, 95%CI = .067 to .158.

Figure 2 shows the effect sizes as a function of sampling error and the regression lines for the three models.

Inspection of Figure 1 provides further evidence that the squared-SE model. The red line (squared sampling error) fits the data better than the blue line (sampling error) model. In particular for large samples, PET underestimates effect sizes.

The significant relationship between sample size (sampling error) and effect sizes implies that large effects in small studies cannot be interpreted at face value. For example, the most highly cited study of predictive validity had only a sample size of N = 42 participants (McConnell & Leibold, 2001). The squared-sampling-error model predicts an effect size estimate of r = .30, which is close to the observed correlation of r = .39 in that study.

In sum, a focal meta-analysis replicates Kurdi et al.’s (2019) main finding that the average predictive validity of the race IAT is small, r ~ .1. However, the focal meta-analysis also produced a new finding. Whereas the initial meta-analysis suggested that effect sizes are highly variable, the new meta-analysis suggests that a large portion of this variability is explained by publication bias.

Moderator Analysis

I explored several potential moderator variables, namely (a) number of citations, (b) year of publication, (c) whether IAT effects were direct or moderator effects, (d) whether the correlation coefficient was reported or computed based on test statistics, and (e) whether the criterion was an actual behavior or an attitude measure. The only statistically significant result was a weaker correlation in studies that predicted a moderating effect of the race IAT, b = -.11, se = .05, z = 2.28, p = .032. However, the effect would not be significant after correction for multiple comparison and heterogeneity remained virtually unchanged, I2 = 27.15%.

During the coding of the studies, the article “Ironic effects of racial bias during interracial interactions” stood out because it reported a counter-intuitive result. in this study, Black confederates rated White participants with higher (pro-White) race IAT scores as friendlier. However, other studies find the opposite effect (e.g., McConnell & Leibold, 2001). If the ironic result was reported because it was statistically significant, it would be a selection effect that is not captured by the regression models and it would produce unexplained heterogeneity. I therefore also tested a model that excluded all negative effect. As bias is introduced by this selection, the model is not a test of publication bias, but it may be better able to correct for publication bias. The effect size estimate was very similar, a = .133, se = .017, 95%CI = .010 to .166. However, heterogeneity was reduced to 0%, suggesting that selection for significance fully explains heterogeneity in effect sizes.

In conclusion, moderator analysis did not find any meaningful moderators and heterogeneity was fully explained by publication bias, including publishing counterintuitive findings that suggest less discrimination by individuals with more prejudice. The finding that publication bias explains most of the variance is extremely important because Kurdi et al. (2019) suggested that heterogeneity is large and meaningful, which would suggest that higher predictive validity could be found in future studies. In contrast, the current results suggest that correlations greater than .2 in previous studies were largely due to selection for significance with small samples, which also explains unrealistically high correlations in neuroscience studies with the race IAT (cf. Schimmack, 2021b).

Predictive Validity of Self-Ratings

The predictive validity of self-ratings is important for several reasons. First, it provides a comparison standard for the predictive validity of the race IAT. For example, Greenwald et al. (2009) emphasized that predictive validity for the race IAT was higher than for self-reports. However, Kurdi et al.’s (2019) meta-analysis found the opposite. Another reason to examine the predictive validity of explicit measures is that implicit and explicit measures of racial attitudes are correlated with each other. Thus, it is important to establish the predictive validity of self-ratings to estimate the incremental predictive validity of the race IAT.

Figure 2 shows the results. The sampling-error model shows a non-zero effect size, but sampling error is large, and the confidence interval includes zero, a = .121, se = .117, 95%CI = -.107 to .350. Effect sizes are also extremely heterogeneous, I2 = 62.37%. The intercept for the squared-sampling-error model is significant, a = .176, se = .071, 95%CI = .036 to .316, but the model does not explain more of the heterogeneity in effect sizes than the squared-sampling-error model, I2 = 63.33%. To remain comparability, I use the squared-sampling error estimate. This confirms Kurdi et al.’s finding that self-ratings have slightly higher predictive validity, but the confidence intervals overlap. For any practical purposes, predictive validity of the race IAT and self-reports is similar. Repeating the moderator analyses that were conducted with the race IAT revealed no notable moderators.

Implicit-Explicit Correlations

Only 21 of the 60 studies reported information about the correlation between the race IAT and self-report measures. There was no indication of publication bias, and the effect size estimates of the three models converge on an estimate of r ~ .2 (Figure 3). Fortunately, this result can be compared with estimates from large internet studies (Axt, 2017) and a meta-analysis of implicit-explicit correlations (Hofmann et al., 2005). These estimates are a bit higher, r ~ .25. Thus, using an estimate of r = .2 is conservative for a test of the incremental predictive validity of the race IAT.

Incremental Predictive Validity

It is straightforward to estimate the incremental predictive validity of the race IAT and self-reports on the basis of the correlations between race IAT, self-ratings, and criterion variables. However, it is a bit more difficult to provide confidence intervals around these estimates. I used a simulated dataset with missing values to reproduce the correlations and sampling error of the meta-analysis. I then regressed, the criterion on the implicit and explicit variable. The incremental predictive validity for the race IAT was b = .07, se = .02, 95%CI = .03 to .12. This finding implies that the race IAT on average explains less than 1% unique variance in prejudice behavior. The incremental predictive validity of the explicit measure was b = .165, se = .03, 95%CI = .11 to .23. This finding suggests that explicit measures explain between 1 and 4 percent of the variance in prejudice behaviors.

Assuming that there is no shared method variance between implicit and explicit measures and criterion variables and that implicit and explicit measures reflect a common construct, prejudice, it is possible to fit a latent variable model to the correlations among the three indicators of prejudice (Schimmack, 2021). Figure 4 shows the model and the parameter estimates.

According to this model, prejudice has a moderate effect on behavior, b = .307, se = .043. This is consistent with general findings about effects of personality traits on behavior (Epstein, 1973; Funder & Ozer, 1983). The loading of the explicit variable on the prejudice factor implies that .582^2 = 34% of the variance in self-ratings of prejudice is valid variance. The loading of the implicit variable on the prejudice factor implies that .353^2 = 12% of the variance in race IAT scores is valid variance. Notably, similar estimates were obtained with structural equation models of data that are not included in this meta-analysis (Schimmack, 2021). Using data from Cunningham et al., (2001) I estimated .43^2 = 18% valid variance. Using Bar-Anan and Vianello (2018), I estimated .44^2 = 19% valid variance. Using data from Axt, I found .44^2 = 19% valid variance, but 8% of the variance could be attributed to group differences between African American and White participants. Thus, the present meta-analytic results are consistent with the conclusion that no more than 20% of the variance in race IAT scores reflects actual prejudice that can influence behavior.

In sum, incremental predictive validity of the race IAT is low for two reasons. First, prejudice has only modest effects on actual behavior in a specific situation. Second, only a small portion of the variance in race IAT scores is valid.

Discussion

In the 1990s, social psychologists embraced the idea that behavior is often influenced by processes that occur without conscious awareness. This assumption triggered the implicit revolution (Greenwald & Banaji, 2017). The implicit paradigm provided a simple explanation for low correlations between self-ratings of prejudice and implicit measures of prejudice, r ~ .2. Accordingly, many people are not aware how prejudice their unconscious is. The Implicit Association Test seemed to support this view because participants showed more prejudice on the IAT than on self-report measures. First studies of predictive validity also seemed to support this new model of prejudice (McConnell & Leibold, 2001), and the first meta-analysis suggested that implicit bias has a stronger influence on behavior than self-reported attitudes (Greenwald, Poehlman, Uhlmann, & Banaji, 2009, p. 17).

However, the following decade produced many findings that require a reevaluation of the evidence. Greenwald et al. (2009) published the largest test (N = 1057) of predictive validity. This study examined the ability of the race IAT to predict racial bias in the 2008 US presidential election. Although the race IAT was correlated with voting for McCain versus Obama, incremental predictive validity was close to zero and no longer significant when explicit measures were included in the regression model. Then subsequent meta-analyses produced lower estimates of predictive validity and it is no longer clear that predictive validity, especially incremental predictive validity, is high enough to reject the null-hypothesis. Although incremental predictive validity may vary across conditions, no conditions have been identified that show practically significant incremental predictive validity. Unfortunately, IAT proponents continue to make misleading statements based on single studies with small samples. For example, Kurdi et al. claimed that “effect sizes tend to be relatively large in studies on physician–patient interactions” (p. 583). However, this claim was based on a study with just 15 physicians, which makes it impossible to obtain precise effect size estimates about implicit bias effects for physicians.

Beyond Nil-Hypothesis Testing

Just like psychology in general, meta-analyses also suffer from the confusion of nil-hypothesis testing and null-hypothesis testing. The nil-hypothesis is the hypothesis that an effect size is exactly zero. Many methodologists have pointed out that it is rather silly to take the nil-hypothesis at face value because the true effect size is rarely zero (Cohen, 1994). The more important question is whether an effect size is sufficiently different from zero to be theoretically and practically meaningful. As pointed out by Greenwald (1975), effect size estimation has to be complemented with theoretical predictions about effect sizes. However, research on predictive validity of the race IAT lacks clear criteria to evaluate effect size estimates.

As noted in the introduction, there is agreement about the practical importance of statistically small effects for the prediction of discrimination and other prejudiced behaviors. The contentious question is whether the race IAT is a useful measure of dispositions to act prejudiced. Viewed from this perspective, focus on the race IAT is myopic. The real challenge is to develop and validate measures of prejudice. IAT proponents have often dismissed self-reports as invalid, but the actual evidence shows that self-reports have some validity that is at least equal to the validity of the race IAT. Moreover, even distinct self-report measures like the feeling thermometer and the symbolic racism have incremental predictive validity. Thus, prejudice researchers should use a multi-method approach. At present it is not clear that the race IAT can improve the measurement of prejudice (Greenwald et al., 2009; Schimmack, 2021a).

Methodological Implications

This article introduced a new type of meta-analysis. Rather than trying to find as many vaguely related studies and to code as many outcomes as possible, focused meta-analysis is limited to the main test of the key hypothesis. This approach has several advantages. First, the classic approach creates a large amount of heterogeneity that is unique to a few studies. This noise makes it harder to find real moderators. Second, the inclusion of vaguely related studies may dilute effect sizes. Third, the inclusion of non-focal studies may mask evidence of publication bias that is virtually present in all literatures. Finally, focal meta-analysis are much easier to do and can produce results much faster than the laborious meta-analyses that psychologists are used to. Even when classic meta-analysis exist, they often ignore publication bias. Thus, an important task for the future is to complement existing meta-analysis with focal meta-analysis to ensure that published effect sizes estimates are not diluted by irrelevant studies and not inflated by publication bias.

Prejudice Interventions

Enthusiasm about implicit biases has led to interventions that aim to reduce implicit biases. This focus on implicit biases in the real world needs to be reevaluated. First, there is no evidence that prejudice typically operates outside of awareness (Schimmack, 2021a). Second, individual differences in prejudice have only a modest impact on actual behaviors and are difficult to change. Not surprisingly, interventions that focus on implicit bias are not very infective. Rather than focusing on changing individuals’ dispositions, interventions may be more effective by changing situations. In this regard, the focus on internal factors is rather different from the general focus in social psychology on situational factors (Funder & Ozer, 1983). In recent years, it has become apparent that prejudice is often systemic. For example, police training may have a much stronger influence on racial disparities in fatal use of force than individual differences in prejudice of individual officers (Andersen, Di Nota, Boychuk, Schimmack, & Collins, 2021).

Conclusion

The present meta-analysis of the race IAT provides further support for Meissner et al.’s (2019) conclusion that IATs “predictive value for behavioral criteria is weak and their incremental validity over and above self-report measures is negligible” (p. 1). The present meta-analysis provides a quantitative estimate of b = .07. Although researchers can disagree about the importance of small effect sizes, I agree with Meissner that the gains from adding a race IAT to the measurement of prejudice is negligible. Rather than looking for specific contexts in which the race IAT has higher predictive validity, researchers should use a multi-method approach to measure prejudice. The race IAT may be included to further explore its validity, but there is no reason to rely on the race IAT as the single most important measure of individual differences in prejudice.

References

Funder, D.C., & Ozer, D.J. (1983). Behavior as a function of the situation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 44, 107–112.

Kurdi, B., Seitchik, A. E., Axt, J. R., Carroll, T. J., Karapetyan, A., Kaushik, N., et al. (2019). Relationship between the implicit association test and intergroup behavior: a meta-analysis. American Psychologist. 74, 569–586. doi: 10.1037/amp0000364

Viechtbauer, W. (2010). Conducting meta-analyses in R with the metafor package. Journal of Statistical Software36(3), 1–48. https://www.jstatsoft.org/v036/i03.