Over the last four years or so, a research tool has been capturing the attention of not only social psychologists, but a significant portion of the general public. This tool can assess how closely people’s brains link concepts such as items like “black and bad” or “women and passive” and can consequently reveal subtle forms of discrimination amongst participants.

It’s called the Implicit Association Test (IAT) and focuses on how closely and quickly our brains can link or categorise various words and images. The idea is that most of us identify words and images more rapidly, when they come from closely related categories than when they come from un-related categories. For instance, if you associate librarians with intelligence and boxers with violence, you can probably tell in a split-second that synonyms for intelligence like ‘smart’ and ‘brainy’ relate to the dual category ‘librarians or intelligence’ and synonyms for violence like ‘aggression and hostility’ relate to the dual category “boxers or violence”.

Many social psychologists believe that these cognitive associations lead to “implicit bias” (the attitudes and stereotypes that affect our understanding) which can then lead to subtle forms of discrimination.

In the case of sexual discrimination or gender bias, recent research in America using IAT tests revealed that gender bias was present and furthermore influenced aspects like voting and female leadership within the workforce. Students at Stanford University who lead the study found that when participants followed instructions to sort images rapidly, the average person found it easier to pair words like “president”, governor” and “executive” with male names and words like “ secretary”, “assistant” and “aide” with female names. This finding indicated that these participants had a lot more difficulty associating women with leadership.

The students argued that despite living in a society in which gender equality is politically correct and socially desirable, implicit bias still exists. Even when they considered only participants who explicitly said they would support a female candidate, the findings suggested that many had difficulty associating women with leadership attributes. As a result, the students concluded that these participants would be less likely to vote for a woman candidate come voting time.

While the IAT test cannot provide a definitive or conclusive judgement on whether a particular group or individual can be labelled ‘sexist’ or ‘racist’ or ‘homophobic’, it’s findings have revealed surprising results and have suggested bias towards certain issues that individuals may not have even considered processing.

To find out more, and to test whether you yourself have implicit bias towards gender, race, religion ect., we encourage everyone to take part in the online ‘Project Implicit’ test. The test was founded by three scientists from three universities: Harvard University, University of Virginia and University of Washington and founded in 1989. To take part in any one of these tests, click here: