Messing with the Unconscious

Messing with the Unconscious

by Michael Corballis

Michael Corballis was for many years a Professor of Psychology at the University of Auckland. A specialist in cognitive psychology, Mike made important contributions to a number of different areas of psychology, from laterality (sidedness) in organisms and in the brain to the evolution of language. In July 2021, Mike was one of the signatories to the Listener letter In Defence of Science, in the wake of which the Royal Society of New Zealand initiated an investigation into the three signatories (including Mike) who were fellows. When Mike passed away in November 2021, tributes flowed in from across the world of science, including from his former student Steven Pinker. This website was set up partly to continue Mike’s legacy of careful and politically disinterested science

The following, a brief warning about drawing over-hasty conclusions from the ‘Implicit Association Test’ (IAT), was written in 2018 and is re-posted from Mike’s blog (which can be found on the New Zealand Web Archive of the National Library of New Zealand).

It seems that we are all prone to unconscious biases. This has led to efforts, especially in universities, to recognise our biases where they are likely to be harmful, and correct them.

The case for unconscious bias is based largely on the implicit association test (IAT). The test works like this: people are shown combined pictures and words, and asked to respond quickly whether the word is “good” (such as happy) or “bad” (such as murder), and then asked to respond “white” or “black” depending on whether they see a white or a black face.  If they respond more quickly to “good/white” and “bad/black” combinations than to “good/black” and “bad/white” they are deemed to be biased against black people. Responses are entered quickly on a keyboard, so that the responder doesn’t have time to think, implying that the bias is unconscious.

The test was devised 20 years ago by researchers at Harvard and the University of Washington, and was at first widely admired and adapted to different settings. But serious doubt has crept in. Even its inventors are have had second thoughts, and in 2005 effectively conceded to the widespread criticism the IAT attracted.

For a start, it does not meet the usual criteria for psychometric testing—or even come close. It has low reliability, meaning that if the same individual is tested more than once, the score is likely to be different, possibly even reversed. More importantly, it has low to zero validity, which means that it does not correlate with actual behaviour in social contexts. A person may be deemed to be biased according to the IAT, but show no sign of it in everyday commerce.

Delving into the unconscious can be perilous. A test as erratic as the IAT can lead to accusations of racism or sexism in people whose actual behaviour is exemplary. This in turn can create harmful self-recrimination and unwarranted feelings of guilt. It can be used to political advantage, stirring up mass movements or even hysteria that is otherwise undocumented. Some results suggested that up to 95 percent of Americans scored positively for racial bias, but this is at best implausible as a measure of how society actual works. To be sure, there are biases, but they’re surely not that extreme.

The unconscious also featured not so long ago in the neo-Freudian argument that various forms of psychological maladjustment were attributed to early childhood abuse. Memory of this abuse was supposedly repressed, buried in the unconscious. The trick was to help the afflicted individual to recover those memories, and find a healthy resolution. This too raised serious problems.

First, such memories can be false, and easily implanted through aggressive therapy. This means that people are sometimes falsely accused of abuse, and in some cases incarcerated. Punishing the innocent can be as damaging as failing to punish the guilty. The presumption of innocence until proven guilty is a feature of most legal jurisdictions, and a human right under the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Evidence based on the supposed unconscious may never provide adequate proof of anything in terms of everyday conduct. And it’s not just the accused who suffer. People led to believe they were abused when they were not carry a false image of themselves and their pasts, as well as a false sense of injustice.

It is of course appropriate to rid society of destructive elements, such as child abuse and racial or gender bias and, but this should be based on accurate evidence. It’s healthier, though, to avoid the murk of the unconscious and focus on what people actually do. Appealing to the unconscious is a bit like reading tea leaves or the formation of clouds: more likely to stir prejudices than reveal truth.



Michael Corballis