Tell someone that he's sexist, ageist or racist nowadays and it's easy to get a red-faced defensive reaction. In modern times, men and women of all backgrounds would rather believe themselves to be benevolent egalitarians.
Yet, while few want to be known as a bigot, millions of people seem to wonder, "am I?" -- and going to the Project Implicit Web site to find out.
Started as a research tool at Yale in 1995, Project Implicit now has 11 million tests completed, and 20,000 new tests taken each week by Web surfers curious about their possible unconscious biases.
Participants are instructed to assign a class of attributes -- such as smart, lazy or failure -- to a single group of people -- such as women, Christians, or Americans -- with one or two keystrokes as fast as they can. The point is to measure the first reaction, not the self-edited one.
The conscious or unconscious preferences may include thoughts about pets, sports teams, religion or the most controversial – race.
"It's become the biggest behavioral science experiment ever. It just ballooned beyond our wildest imagination," said Brian Nosek, a professor at the University of Virginia and one of three initial creators of the project. Mahzarin Banaji, of Harvard University, and Tony Greenwald of the University of Washington also created the first Implicit Association Tests, or IATs.
"It is very flexible as a tool, but it is restricted to measure simple associations," said Nosek.
"The huge majority of people say this is very intriguing and it doesn't mean they agree with it," he added.
Nosek said the first IATs were designed to chip away at the question: Do we have complete access to our own minds and to the basis of our behaviors?
From the results of the 11 million tests finished so far, Nosek is willing to guess the answer is no.
"No we don't have complete access to our own minds," said Nosek. "I might be doing things -- deciding who to hire, who to help in my class -- by associations that I don't even know are there."
Beyond just curiosity into the subconscious, plenty of people interested in IATs say subconscious biases are quite obvious and hurtful to people who are discriminated against.
Peggy Howell of the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance said she's heard far too many stories of unconscious bias insinuating larger people are lazy or stupid. But the most frequent example, Howell said, are the people who tell a large person what to eat.
"Even strangers in the grocery stores do it," said Howell. "I think very often that people see themselves as well intentioned when they tell you that you need to lose weight. They don't realize that what they're doing is displaying bias -- a test like that might see the subtle subconscious things that they do."
Outside of the curious millions who've tried these tests at home, some academics have been using the tool for research and education. Rebecca Puhl, director of research at the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University, believes the IATs are an excellent way to raise awareness of weight bias that can interfere with a person's education, job prospects or even care from a doctor.
"It's a very effective training tool," said Puhl, who has been studying weight stigma for 10 years.