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.
In her work, Puhl gives presentations about stigma to doctors, professionals and educators and almost always opens up a talk with an IAT test.
"It's a very striking test to take," said Puhl. "We often have people coming up to me and say, 'I had no idea, I really want to make sure I don't want to communicate these kinds of attitudes.'"
Other academics who study other forms of discrimination in Western culture agree that IATs may be the best way to explore a subtle bias.
"In a society like ours, with our history and so much tension and competition in economic and racial groups, in jobs and affirmative action, and in party affiliation…it would be almost impossible to grow up without presuppositions about another group," said Richard Delgado, university professor of law at Seattle University and a expert in critical race theory.
Delgado thinks the days of prevalent overt racism are, for the large part, on the wane, but not "aversive" racism.
"Aversive racism is kind of subtle; you get a feel for it," he said. "A person is coldly correct and formal – the person often won't shake your hand or meet your glance."
In a job situation, Delgado said a person with aversive racist behavior may "break off the interview as soon as possible."
Delgado said such subtle behavior may be more difficult to expose, and more difficult for the person with the bias to recognize, which is why he believes such simple measures like an IAT could help.
"If someone accuses us, and says, 'you let something slip'… most of us won't search our souls, but get mad," said Delgado. "But if a person takes a test privately and has scientific evidence that they are a whole lot slower at associating positive attributes to a group, it might make a difference."
Despite the enlightening findings, even Nosek doesn't think an IAT is the final word on a person's bias.
"The IAT and the measures like it aren't lie detectors," said Nosek, who is white and said he himself shows a slight preference for white people over people of other races in the IAT tests.
"When I say I'm egalitarian, I'm not lying. I do feel that way," said Nosek. "Your unconscious bias and conscious self -- they both are reflecting what influences our everyday thinking and actions."
To take the test with Project Implicit, visit their Web site.