Think You're Free of Bias? This Test Can Tell You the Truth

We're full of accusations of bias in others but not very forthcoming with our own admissions. A test from Harvard University can help us realize them. AlenD/Shutterstock

Bias is not necessarily a bad thing. At a very basic level, it simply means to prefer one thing over another. I'd rather have a veggie pizza than a meat lover's, and I'd rather go to the beach instead of the mountains. There's nothing wrong with having preferences of this nature.

Bias becomes a problem, of course, when it is against certain types or groups of people, and we let those biases negatively influence the way we treat others.

Anyone can have a bias about anything: race, gender, sexual identity, religious beliefs, body types, professions, parenting styles, mental illnesses — you name it. Look at the political climate, for example. Republican politicians have been accused of bias against minorities, the media has been accused of bias against Republicans, and the Democrats have been accused of bias against the working class. We're full of accusations but not very forthcoming with admissions.

If you think you're truly free of bias — even unconscious bias — why not put that theory to the test? Since 1998, Harvard University's Project Implicit has been issuing Implicit Association Tests (IAT) designed to uncover our unconscious biases against particular groups. The tests measure attitudes and beliefs that people may be unwilling or unable to report, according to the website, and the goal of the nonprofit organization is to educate the public about those hidden biases.

You might be surprised by what you learn. I took a test about gender equality, for example, and my results showed that I have a "moderate automatic association" of men as leaders and women as supporters. My women's studies professors would not be pleased...

How to take a test

I created a free account and went through a few tests on topics such as self-esteem, mental illness and race. The self-esteem test wanted to discern if "implicit self-esteem is associated with performing health promoting behaviors." It quizzed me on "me words" versus "not me words," as well as good and bad associations to those words. I had to answer as fast as I could, and quicker answers indicated your bias (your gut reaction). It showed I had an "automatic association of 'good' with 'me'" because I was faster at responding when "me" and "good" items were displayed over when "me" and "bad" items were displayed.

Next I took a test that aimed to find out if I assumed people with mental illnesses had violent tendencies. I don't, according to the test, but that's not really the point. What became clear was that it was obvious how to answer the questions to get the "desired" results. The instructions emphasized that you should go with your gut reaction to try to compensate for that, but still, you could tell that one answer shows a bias where the other doesn't.

For example, one question asked: If a group home for former mental patients was located nearby, would I allow my children to go to the movies alone? Well, I wouldn’t allow my children to go to the movies alone until they’re teenagers regardless of what's nearby. But parenting philosophies aside, obviously answering "no" to that question meant that a bias existed. And another question asked me to agree or not with this statement: “One important thing about mental patients is that you cannot tell what they will do from one minute to the next." Again, obviously if I agree, that indicates a bias.

So if you tell yourself you're bias-free and you take this test knowing how to answer to get the results to reinforce that belief, then you're not going to walk away enlightened. But if you answer honestly and forget about outsmarting the test, you might just learn something about yourself.