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Implicit Associations
If it’s true that “first impressions are the most lasting”, then it makes no sense why we are able
to change our mind so quickly and so often; in fact, a majority of people would probably deny that
their first impression is truly permanent. Although this phrase clearly goes against most of what we
know about ourselves and how we change our minds, the proverb remains unchanged. The reason is
that, although we may not agree with this statement, it has been confirmed by psychologists by the
results of multiple association tests, more specifically the Implicit Association Test (IAT). This test
gives clear evidence that, most of the time, people have a hidden bias, based on a lasting first
impression, even when they may strongly believe they do not harbor even the slightest prejudice.
Through years of administering the test, the result is unanimous that while our explicit attitudes, or
what we believe we feel and think in regards to something, seem to change easily and frequently, our
hidden implicit attitudes run much deeper. Even when we change our minds and our explicit attitudes,
our implicit associations remain the same from the time of our initial experience. Therefore, in order
to better understand ourselves as humans, we must ask the questions: what implicit associations do we
hold, and how can they be changed?
As humans, we are constantly learning. We learn how to walk, how to speak, and how to
conduct ourselves in a social setting, in addition to structured academic subjects. As children we
depend on our parents, family members, and our siblings to act as our models. We are unsure of how
to act, so we learn by imitating what we see others doing. As we get older, we gain the capacity to
learn in an academic setting and at that point we rely on our teachers and mentors to teach us.
However, we are not completely helpless at any of these points. Although lacking formal education,
we are equipped with instincts that help us avoid behaviors that cause us harm; for example, touching a
hot stove or the sharp end of a knife. In the same way, our brain is able to form complex opinions
without consciously doing so. These opinions, however, are harder to avoid in the future because
unlike the burn of a hot stove or the cut of a knife, their effects can go completely undetected, allowing
us to assume they have no effect. However, these attitudes are not harmless or immediately forgotten.
They actually provide “a disposition to react favorably or unfavorably to a class of objects,” (1) from
that moment on, deciding how we will react to and what we will think of certain events and stimuli in
the future.
On a more scientific level, implicit cognitions are made when a stimuli is noticed, triggering a
response by the person witnessing it. With implicit associations, this encounter is different than for
ordinary stimuli because the subject “mislabels it in a way that influences the judgment of either that
stimulus or some other stimulus,” (1). After that, an opinion is formed about how the original stimuli
made the person feel. This could be a positive implicit association when the first experience had been
a positive and accurate portrayal of the stimuli. In this case, implicit association would be a good
thing because it would influence the person to have an honest and positive reaction to similar events in
the future. On the other hand, if the subject misreads or misunderstands the original stimuli, they will
form an incorrect bias that will negatively influence all of their future encounters with the stimuli. For
example, if while taking the subway for the first time, the subject witnesses a theft, her first impression
of the subway will understandably be negative. Her implicit association then is that she runs the risk
of being robbed if she chooses to use it. Although this is an unfair prejudice to hold, since the
subject’s first and only encounter had been negative it will be her lasting impression. The real problem
with this kind of situation is that not only is that lasting first impression extremely difficult to reverse,
but that the encounter may then cause the subject to conclude that comparable situations are equally
Let’s consider again the previous example, only this time, the subject has overcome her fear of
the subway either by bravery or simply by lack of other options. Over time and through experience,
the subject has decided that her first impression was wrong and she is now fairly comfortable with
using the subway. Although she knows there is still the slight chance of robbery, she is no longer
convinced that she personally will be the victim. Despite the subject’s change of heart, the implicit
association still remains unchanged. Even though the subject may argue that her paranoia of theft on
public transportation has vanished, implicit associations depend solely on first encounters. Therefore,
this is simply a change of explicit association. An explicit association is based on more recent
encounters and changes often as new events take place. Explicit associations can be better understood
when the idea of schemas is considered. A schema is a cognitive tool that helps us organize and
interpret information. Schemas can be thought of as a folder within a filing cabinet, each classifying
and organizing events into categories that make sense to our brain. As everyday interactions present
new information to us, the folders expand and our view of the world changes. Just as the schemas
evolve day to day actions and experiences, our explicit attitudes and associations change as our schema
folders expand.
At some points, like right after the subject’s initial encounter, initial and explicit attitudes may
match up but it isn’t uncommon for the explicit association to differ after the first encounter. The main
difference between implicit and explicit association is simple; since explicit associations depend on our
worldview and experiences, which are constantly changing, it only makes sense that it too can change
constantly. On the other hand, since implicit associations depend solely on one concrete encounter, it
doesn’t change often.
In general, implicit associations and explicit associations are all relative to the person
experiencing them. Implicit associations are “memories from past socialization or experiences that
affect current thought and behavior without conscious awareness,” (3). Even though there is usually
no conscious awareness of their existence, they do affect actions directly. “Implicit prejudice has been
correlated with negative nonverbal behaviors,” (3) such as unfriendliness and moodiness for no
apparent reason. These reactions are subtle and harder for the subject to control than reactions that
stem from an explicit association. Since explicit associations are generally obvious to the subject,
conscious thought and speech stem from them. Despite the differences of how implicit and explicit
associations are formed, they each affect our daily lives. Therefore we need to understand exactly
what they are and how we can change them.
The Implicit Association test was first introduced in 1998 by two professors; Anthony
Greenwald and Mahzarin Banaji. In their test, they first prompted people to categorize words into two
groups: good and bad. Next they had the same people
categorize pictures of faces into the categories white and black.
After that they combined the four in two ways: white-good
versus black-bad and white-bad versus black-good. What they
found was that most people possessed an implicit association
that made one portion of the test easier than the opposite
section. They therefore concluded that “most persons have deeply held negative associations with
minority groups that can lead to subtle discrimination without conscious awareness,” (3). However,
this awareness isn’t noticeable in everyday life even by onlookers so it is hard to get rid of these
negative associations. This is one of the main reasons that racism and prejudice exist despite our
improvements of acceptance and equal treatment of others.
Today, over 250 different versions of the IAT exist, each testing a different bias in subjects
ranging from presidents and weapons to race among others. Through the patterns found by the results
of these tests, the existence of not only a single type of association bias but many different types of
association biases have been found. In terms of race and prejudice, the IAT has been able to prove that
how we feel about ourselves affects our views of others especially regarding race and prejudice. Mere
ownership is just one of the examples of implicit association biases that the IAT has found. Mere
ownership is the concept that just a simple sense of ownership of something is enough to create a
positive implicit association. In experiments testing mere association, when a person was given four
icons in a computer game and shown four icons that represent their opponent, their items are given
higher ratings in a survey of an opposing group. Another theory related to implicit associations is the
impact of in-group biases. An in-group bias is the tendency of humans to judge people of their own
groups more leniently than people of another or of an opposing group, even when the people are all
Despite the existence of many different biases, the most impacting one is the activation of
implicit affiliation and rejection. In these, a person passes an implicit judgment of whether or not it
would be more beneficial to get to know someone or to avoid them. Implicit affiliation and rejection
exists in close relation to each person’s implicit self-esteem. Implicit self-esteem, in fact, is the
implicit attitude that creates the natural desire of a positive self-image. Because of this attitude, we
tend to compare ourselves to others and rationalize our faults in
order to create a good mental image of ourselves. We try to
achieve this good mental image of ourselves not only by
comparison, but also through our “tendencies to accept
responsibility for desired outcomes while finding external
causes for undesired outcomes,” (1). While not all implicit
associations involve each of the attitudes, the association does
form in part because of our natural implicit attitudes. Since
negative implicit associations are formed with the help of the
four strong implicit attitudes as well as misunderstanding of the
stimuli it makes sense why such a strong trend of implicit and
unconscious racism exists.
As we’ve seen, explicit associations depend on recent experiences and change as our schemas
change. At the other extreme though, it’s safe to say that our implicit associations are fairly constant.
Stereotypes and associations are considered very stable and not easily altered, but depending on the
context and information given, an explicit association can influence the implicit association. However,
are we able to change them like we can change our explicit associations? The answer to that question
is both yes and no. No matter how hard we tried, we would not be able to change our implicit
associations at the snap of our fingers like we can with our explicit; but over time, and with sufficient
motivation to do so, we are actually able to influence our implicit associations.
Long Term Process
A good way to control negative implicit association is through a process of recognition,
exposure, and active suppression. First, we have to determine the things that aggravate our subtly
implicit associations into action. Although the original memory traces may be weak, by recognizing
and pinpointing the individual events that trigger the associations, we can figure out the thought
patterns that give rise to the negative actions and learn how to moderate them. This step is especially
important because “implicit cognitive effects have been found either to be weakened or reversed for
subjects who could recall the stimuli that ordinarily produce those effects,” (1). For this reason, we
must try to recall our first encounters with the stimuli so that we can better understand and more
effectively change our negative implicit associations.
Just as the results of the IAT could only be found in an indirect manner, implicit associations
themselves are most prevalent when they are unnoticed and spontaneous. For this reason, when we
start to consciously consider our associations, we can better control their unintended outward
expressions. In Greenwald and Banaji’s paper, “Our attitudes predict our actions…if, as we act, we are
conscious of our attitudes,” (1). By knowing our attitudes, both implicit and explicit, we can control
our own actions and influence how our associations affect us by the way we behave. We can
purposely avoid actions that would reinforce the negative association and try to create a better
understanding of the stimuli that destroys our misconception. Also in Greenwald and Banaji’s paper,
“It appears that increased perceptual fluency of a repeatedly presented stimulus is misattributed to
liking, yielding a positive evaluation of the stimulus,” (1) Based on this, we can take steps to provide
ourselves with healthy exposure in order to create a more positive conception of the stimuli. Exposure
to stimuli will help us to make those conscious explicit actions more natural and implicit. By gradually
allowing ourselves to experience the stimuli with greater frequency, we will begin to form a positive
association with it. This new association will change the way we allow our explicit actions to display a
negative implicit association.
Although this is definitely a long term process that requires deep thought it is effective. After
initial recognition of the associative stimuli, a plan of action can be made to consciously recognize the
association in everyday interactions. Furthermore, by making intentional exposure or learning more
about the stimuli, a new and positive association can be made by actively changing the explicit attitude
and indirectly changing the implicit as well.
Short Term Process
In the cases of particularly motivated subjects, “he or she may control the application of
stereotypes by suppressing them, compensating for their influence, or concentrating on individuating
information,” (6) but he or she is still unable to restrain implicit associations from acting altogether.
To affect negative implicit associations on a short term timeline, “People may be able to achieve the
same goal through the activation and strengthening of Counter-Stereotype (CS) associations”. (6)
Counter stereotypes exist. Therefore we can try to reverse a negative implicit association, such as a
stereotype, by considering that the opposite of the association were true. In order for our brain to
accept counter stereotypes, we need to seriously consider them for ourselves. We can effectively do
this by using mental imagery. Mental imagery is “the conscious and intentional act of creating a
mental representation of a person, object, or event by seeing it with the ‘mind’s eye’,” (6) or in other
words, by thinking about a specific theoretical situation. By using this, the effects of implicit
association on factors such as stereotyping can be easily controlled. Not only does mental imagery
make it easier to access the brain and change implicit associations, but it is also carries the weight of a
real experience; therefore having a bigger effect on learning, decision making, and behavior of the
In order to test this method, several experiments involving the IAT were performed on different
groups of college students. In one of the experiments, subjects were given an initial IAT (relating the
words strong, weak, woman, and man) then told to perform mental imagery. Half of the subjects were
told to imagine a neutral tropical vacation while the other half imagined their idea of a strong woman.
There was no effect on the results of the portion of the IAT that affirmed the stereotype by either half,
but on the IAT portion that was stereotype-inconsistent, the group who did CS imaging performed
much faster and the implicit association that women are weak decreased by half. Likewise, when a
different group was told to imagine a woman consistent with the type of “weak” that the IAT was
testing, they had a much greater register of the implicit stereotype than the neutral group. These
experiments proved that mental imagery is a viable strategy to use with this type of association
conditioning because not only is it easy for the subject to do, but it actually produces real results.
Although a CS mental imagery only changes implicit stereotypes for a short time, if used
frequently, the CS will become more naturally believed and effortlessly explicit. Therefore, it is better
to simply encourage people to think of the diversity of a group and the people in the group who
disconfirm a stereotype as a way to affect the implicit association. Overall, the main thing we can
learn from both long term and short term strategies of changing implicit associations, is that “not only
can implicit stereotypes influence explicit judgments and behavior, but explicit thoughts and strategies
may also influence implicit stereotypes,” (6).
Although we’ve seen that negative implicit associations can be changed, it is always harder to
change an implicit association than an explicit association. This is mainly because of the many factors
that affect the formation of these implicit associations like implicit attitudes and stimuli
misconceptions. Even though the two strategies discussed are good techniques for overriding negative
associations, they require a very motivated subject to undergo these processes. However, a lot of
times, there would be a lack of motivation and a lack of interest in changing an implicit association,
especially if it doesn’t correspond with the explicit association which subjects may believe is their true
opinion. Therefore, although challenging, the best way to eliminate negative associations is to avoid
them completely by forming positive and right-minded associations from the beginning.
(1) Implicit Social Cognition: Attitudes, Self-Esteem, and Stereotypes
Anthony G. Greenwald and Mahzarin R. Banaji
Psychological Review
Vol. 102, No. 1 (1995) pp. 4-27
Published by: American Psychological Association. Inc.
Article Stable URL:
This article was one of the most important and valid articles of them all. The two authors are the ones who
actually developed the IAT and the concept of the implicit association. Therefore, their research is far more
detailed, but also more explanative of the actual concept than any of the other sources I used. The authors tested
subjects using the IAT to determine that implicit and explicit associations are entirely different. Also, it presents
in-depth descriptions of many different implicit association biases that help the reader understand why implicit
associations are so complicated and intertwined with our everyday cognitive processes.
(2) The Bias Finders
Bruce Bower
Science News
Vol. 169, No. 16 (Apr. 22, 2006), pp. 250-251+253
Published by: Society for Science & the Public
Article Stable URL:
This article discusses both the first IAT tests and also the trend that although self-reported opinions may change
according to the information a person receives, the implicit attitude stays the same. In this science news report,
the main idea is that first conceptions are extremely difficult to erase so it is better if those same first
impressions are right-minded and accurate. Since this article is from the magazine Science News as well as from
Jstor, it is a fairly reliable source. I like this site because unlike some of the other scientific articles, they use
language that is easy enough for people not-so-familiar with psychology to understand. Most scientists would
definitely agree with all the information given and the author uses the results of actual IAT tests to illustrate his
points so this source would be simply evaluated as valid.
(3) Does Unconscious Racism Exist?
Lincoln Quillian
Social Psychology Quarterly
Vol. 71, No. 1 (Mar., 2008), pp. 6-11
Published by: American Sociological Association
Article Stable URL:
This article is a little different than the rest. Although it was published in a Psychology journal, it seems a little
less technical. The author uses the phrases “unconscious racism” and “implicit prejudice” interchangeably, but
also brings up the fact that not only are blacks subject to these, but also other minority groups like Latinos. This
article is especially good because it is fairly new. This article was made in 2006 so it is still valid and I think
that the information presented about minorities is extremely valid even today because the social condition of
implicit prejudice has not changed enough to invalidate this work. Also, the author is a reliable source because
she does a lot of study with psychology and is a Professor of Sociology and fellow of institute of policy research
at Northwestern University.
(4) Implicit Attitude Measures: Consistency, Stability, and Convergent Validity
William A. Cunningham, Kristopher J. Preacher and Mahzarin R. Banaji
Psychological Science
Vol. 12, No. 2 (Mar., 2001), pp. 163-170
Published by: Sage Publications, Inc. on behalf of the Association for Psychological Science
Article Stable URL:
This is an actual research article written by the three scientists who performed the experiment. In the
experiment, they test three different tests that all address the same issue: to examine the unconscious attitudes of
the subjects vs. the subjects’ own self-reported attitudes. By performing an IAT, Response-Window Priming,
and a Response-Window IAT, they investigate both the relationship between self-reported non-prejudice and the
consistent test scores among the different tests. This article is definitely valid because its findings agree with
previous research results so most scientists would agree with their findings. Also, this is also extremely
informed because two of the three authors are Professors at Yale and the other is a Professor at Ohio State
University. I would definitely use this article in my paper because not only do they talk about the different
kinds of test, but they evaluate the consistency between the results of each as well as the relationship between
implicit and explicit attitudes in regards to both race and prejudice.
(5) Implicit and Explicit Prejudice and Interracial Interaction
John F. Dovidio, Kerry Kawakami and Samuel L. Gaertner
Journal of Personality and Social Psychology
Vol. 82, No.1 (2002), pp. 62-68
Published by: American Psychological Association. Inc.
Article Stable URL:
This article talked a lot about the way that implicit associations actually affect our interactions. In particular, the
authors experimented to see whether a white person’s belief of their implicit association affected how they
interacted when a black participant talked with them. First, the white participants were asked to self-report, they
then had a conversation with a black participant and then had to evaluate how friendly they think they behaved.
The results showed that the self-reported associate did accurately predict how the subject interacted with their
black partner. Also, surprisingly, the reported association could be used to predict how much friendlier the
whites considered their interactions to be. I found this article on Google Scholar, but the stable URL required a
payment of $15 so I was unsure about the validity of this article, however, on the actual Google Scholar results
page, Google had provided a free PDF. I think that this is a really important and useful source as well as
informed and reliable. However, I think it could be considered a little controversial since the whites might not
agree with the conclusion that their sense of their own friendliness could be predicted solely by their reported
(6) Imagining Stereotypes Away: The Moderation of Implicit Stereotypes through Mental
Irene V. Blair, Jennifer E. Ma and Alison P. Lenton
Journal of Personality and Social Psychology
Vol. 81, No.5 (2001) pp. 828-841
Published by: American Psychological Association. Inc.
Article Stable URL:
This article was extremely informational. I have no doubt that this is an informed article because the authors
had performed such extensive testing to determine whether their hypothesis had been correct or incorrect. In
this article, they talked a lot about whether implicit associations, especially in the form or stereotypes, can be
changed. They did five experiments using the concept of counter-stereotype mental imagery to create a new
implicit association. Immediately after mental imagery that was relevant to the topic being tested, participants
were asked to complete an IAT. Compared to the results of an earlier IAT, the subjects who had considered the
counter-stereotype had an improved reaction to the counter-stereotype enforcing version of the test.