The country's authoritative professional organization of psychologists has given one of its highest honors to the founders of implicit bias research, who have been recognized for their work developing the theory.
Professors Anthony G. Greenwald and Mahzarin R. Banaji received the 2017 Award for Distinguished Scientific Contributions from the American Psychological Association for "identifying how the ordinary cognitive processes can produce biases."
The professors' research into the concept of unconsciously ingrained stereotypes motivating our feelings and thoughts began in the 1990s. Within a few years, they founded Project Implicit, a non-profit that conducts workshops on diversity and inclusion, and developed the Implicit Association Test, which can purportedly assess the extent of a person's unconscious racist, sexist, ableist, ageist, and anti-fat beliefs. The 14 versions of the test examine the unconscious connections between weapons and race, Native Americans and styles of clothing, and gender and subject matter.
One of the more recent permutations asks the test-taker to pack "bad" adjectives such as "gross" and "annoy" under a "Donald Trump" category, and "good" adjectives like "fabulous" under past presidents, including Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan.
Greenwald, a social psychologist at the University of Washington, and Banaji, chair of Harvard's psychology department, claim the test has been taken by over 14 million people in 39 countries since 1995, their theory having gained further popularity after publication of their 2013 book The Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People.
"It's sobering to discover that whatever you believe intellectually, you're biased about race, gender, age, or disability," wrote New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof in 2015.
Implicit bias reeducation has been widely integrated into freshman orientations and faculty training, however the efficacy of such instruction and the legitimacy of the research it is based on have been called into question.
A large-scale analysis last year by reporter Jesse Singal of Greenwald's and Banaji's work found a severe lack of rigorous peer-review of the science underlying the test, and a failure on the part of the theorists to prove rather than presume what was going on in people's unconscious.
Meanwhile, a meta-analysis reviewing the results of 426 studies with 72,000 subjects on implicit bias, published in 2016, found that coaching against unconscious bias "does not necessarily lead to changes in explicit bias or behavior."
Greenwald said in a statement to Campus Reform that he and Banaji "know that awards for our work are not the equivalent of establishing the scientific validity of our work," and they are pursuing further "research to convince ourselves of the validity of our theories."
"Awards for scientific work are not measures of quality of the work—they are more indicators of acceptance within the profession," he added. "Banaji and I are fortunate that our work has received this approval. We are grateful. But not all of the attention that our work has received has been favorable."
The pair were selected by the six-person Committee on Scientific Awards to be so honored by the APA, the largest trade association of its kind with 120,000 members, a $115 million budget, and nearly 100 journals published annually.