Herbie the Love Bug and the Implicit Association Test

Hello everyone! Welcome back and I hope you had a happy holiday season. Before resuming my series on Girard and Heim's Saved from Sacrifice I thought I'd post on a different topic to give everyone a few days to notice I'm back and about to resume that series again.

Over the weekend I was privileged to visit again with the Institute for Research on Psychology and Spirituality group. IRPS is hosted by the Rosemead School of Psychology at Biola University.

One of the things we discussed this year at IRPS is the use of the Implicit Association Test to assess Attachment to God. Since many of you might not be aware of the Implicit Association Test, I thought I'd tell you about it and what it teaches us about the human mind. Given that most of us have a mind, I think it is helpful to know how it works.

First, what do we mean by "implicit"? Back in those Freudian days the distinction used to be between "conscious" and "unconscious." Nowadays, psychologists use the words "implicit" and "explicit." Explicit mental processes are those of which we do have conscious access. Implicit mental processes are those processes of which we don't have conscious access.

But I quickly should clarify that although "implicit" does tend to imply "unconscious" you shouldn't think of implicit mental processes in Freudian terms. Rather than a cauldron of unconscious conflicts and fixations, implicit mental processes are largely manifested in our quick, automatic appraisals of situations and stimuli.

The general consensus of psychology is that most of our cognitive machinery is implicit and this implicit machinery differs in how it processes information when compared to our explicit processes. In short, we have two mental engines. Their specifications are roughly as follows:

The Implicit Cognitive Engine
90%+ of Mental Functioning
Heuristic (i.e., works with fuzzy prototypes)

The Explicit Cognitive Engine
10% or less of Mental Functioning
Logical (i.e., works with definitions rather than prototypes)

Most of our mental functioning is implicit. We tend to emphasize our explicit processes only because we are aware of them. We notice the explicit. We generally miss the implicit engine rumbling underneath conscious life.

For example, if I say "The nurse checked on the patient" most people, if pressed for a visualization, will visualize a woman as the nurse. Why? We generally don't explicitly make this choice (although we could), but we do implicitly associate being a "nurse" with being a "women." We make these associations all the time, we just don't notice we are doing it. But these associations form the very fabric of our mind. Without them every sentence, stimuli, and situation would need to be slowly and effortfully parsed and interpreted. Mental life would slow to a crawl. Instead, I say "grandma," "apple," or "church" and a host of implicit associations flood the mind. Most come automatically and unbidden, although we could do a more effortful search. This flood of implicit associations is what we refer to when we say X "means" something.

All this has implications for issues like bias. Take racism. It is hard for psychologists to study racism on the explicit level. If I ask you "Are you a racist?" you'll probably say "No" (or at least I hope so). Explicitly you deny any negative bias toward one race (or an in-group favoritism toward your own race). But what about implicitly? As noted above, this is where the real mental action is. Worse, these implicit associations are generally non-conscioius. You might indeed be biased yet totally unaware of the bias at work. That is problematic. It's hard to change yourself if you don't think you need changing.

So how can we get at those implicit associations? Clearly, just talking to you won't work. We need to get "underneath" your explicit verbiage in some way. Enter the Implicit Association Test (IAT).

The IAT was developed by Harvard psychologists to test for the strength of implicit associations, good and bad, for different targeted stimuli. The first test assessed Good/Bad associations for race. Since then a whole host of tests are available for attitudes regarding obesity, old age, religion and even your feelings regarding President Bush. You can take one of these many tests by going to Project Implicit at the Harvard host site. Click on the link and take one of the tests. Encourage your friends or church group to do the same and share your experiences.

If you take an IAT you see what it does. It assesses reaction time as you sort a target category (e.g., White faces vs. Black faces) along with an attribute (e.g., Good vs. Bad). What the test reveals in the racial version of the IAT is that, generally for white people, when "Good" attributes are paired with "White" faces our ability to classify is improved (assessed as mean reaction time over the repeated trials) relative to the trials when "Good" attributes are paired with "Black" faces. In other words, we find it easier to associate White/Good and Black/Bad than when we have White/Bad and Black/Good pairings. We implicitly association whiteness with goodness and blackness with badness.

What is interesting is that this outcome is hard to overcome by engaging your explicit mental processes. I've taken the test many times. I know what is coming. Yet I can't overcome my implicit associations.

Why am I telling you all this? Well, self-awareness is key to leading a moral life. We might not be able to overcome our implicit associations. But we can become aware of them. And if we become aware of them we can take prophylactic action. To illustrate this I give my students this metaphor:

"You think having a mind is like driving a car. You turn the steering wheel and press the gas and you go where you intend to go. You think choice is like this. That is, you feel like your explicit, conscious awareness governs the direction of your life. But here's the deal. You are not driving an ordinary car. You are driving Herbie the Love Bug. Herbie is your implicit mind, your non-conscious mind. Generally, you (your explicit mind) and Herbie (your implicit mind) want the same thing. But many times Herbie and you disagree. You want to drive to Target but Herbie wants to go to Starbucks. And guess who is going to win that battle? You guessed it. Herbie."

The point of all this is that tests like the IAT help us understand how our minds work. They reveal Herbie to us. And Herbie is powerful. Thus, to lead a moral life we need to be made aware of Herbie's existence and trained in changing or twarting Herbie if Herbie is leading us away from Kingdom goals (as implicit racial bias does). One of my hopes for this blog is that people in the church could come here to learn a little about how they function and then use that knowledge in ways that facilitate a cruciform life.

PS-Since it is a new year, I thought I'd also point out that Herbie is also responsible for why most of us will fail to keep our New Year resolutions...

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