Where did Implicit Response Testing come from?

 In Consumer Neuroscience

Today’s implicit response tests are only possible due to a century of gradual development of understanding of the mind, and of the proliferation of cheap computer technology. There are four key ideas that laid the foundation for implicit response tests and made them possible: 1. The notion that we have attitudes that can be learned and triggered with little or no conscious awareness 2. The idea that indirect questions can reveal these non-conscious attitudes or thoughts 3. The invention of computer-based tests for measuring the implicit associations that make up our memories, and finally 4. The adaptation of these computer-based tests to measure implicit attitudes.

Each of these ideas developed in a sequence, over time.

Non-conscious Attitudes and Thoughts

Since ancient times, writers and philosophers have acknowledged that many of our thoughts and feelings arise from parts of our mind of which we are not conscious. However, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth Centuries, as psychology began to develop as a discipline, the subject of the subconscious mind gained much more focused attention. Sigmund Freud and the psychoanalysts in particular treated the subconscious mind as being of prime importance to our lives. Of course, the Freudian vision of the subconscious was of a seething, primal soup of repressed emotions and the source of neuroses. Psychologists today approach the subconscious differently – whereas Freud was a psychiatrist and worked with case studies of individual people, most work on what is now called the ‘non-conscious’ is conducted with experiments, across many people, generating data that can be analyzed statistically. These experiments search for patterns that reveal the common processes across the general population.

However, in common with Freud and the psychoanalytic movement, most psychologists do assume that our non-conscious minds are key to understanding all aspects of our thoughts and behaviour. Unlike at the beginning of the 20th Century when psychoanalysis was forming, we now have a wealth of real, statistical data to show the effects of the non-conscious.

Indirect Questions

Once psychologists became interested in the non-conscious mind, the next step was to find ways to measure it. One early example was the inkblot tests of the Swiss psychologist Hermann Rorschach. The key idea with the inkblot test is that it uses an ambiguous or abstract image as a type of screen on which people could project their underlying thoughts and feelings.

This idea of using ambiguous images as a way to infer things about people’s inner thoughts wasn’t new. What Rorschach did, however, was to create a standardized test based on his own research and experimentation.

While over the years the Rorschach test would come under criticism for its lack of rigour, the notion of asking indirect questions is still in use in clinics today. For example, there are questionnaires to assess levels of depression that ask indirect questions such as a person’s typical appetite levels. These are questions that don’t appear to be about depression, but the answers reveal information that correlates with levels of depression.

These types of projective and correlative tests are, in a basic way, progenitors of implicit response testing in one important way: they approach the otherwise often hard to get at aspects of our mind indirectly.

Computer Tests of Implicit Memory Priming

From the 1950s onwards, psychologists began to investigate more of the mechanisms behind our thought processes, a movement that became known as Cognitive Psychology. One of their key interests was memory, and how our memories are structured.

Whenever we see an object, we are usually able to immediately, automatically categorize what it is from memory. For example, we see a car and automatically understand it’s a vehicle. Or, more broadly, we see a chair, and understand that its man-made, that it’s for sitting on, that it can be referred to as furniture, and so on. These are learned memory associations, and they come to mind automatically. They aren’t always just a matter of one thing being connected to another, but, like the chair, can fall into a number of categories (i.e. ‘man-made’, ‘furniture’ etc). How can we investigate how these categories are actually structured in our heads? You can’t just ask someone; we have no idea of the organization of these non-conscious maps.

Cognitive psychologists who were interested in how these implicit memory structures are laid out, developed computer-based tests in the 1970s for cleverly measuring how these automatic – or implicit – memory structures are organized. The key to this was the concept of priming: if we are exposed to a stimulus – such as the image of a car or the chair –  the things that we implicitly, non-consciously associate with that stimulus are readied to pop into our conscious minds more quickly. An everyday example of this is the experience of buying a new car: you begin to see that model of car everywhere. This isn’t because everyone is suddenly buying the same model, but rather because you’ve become primed to notice it more readily.

An example of one of these tests that probe our non-conscious memory structures involves priming people with , and then giving them the task of quickly judging whether a string of characters forms a real word or not. Those words that are most closely, implicitly connected to the prime are recognized more quickly. Reaction speed, within these tests, becomes an indirect measure of degree of mental association.

Whilst reaction timing had been used by psychologists before as a way to probe mental processes, the spread of computers across psychology labs in the 1970s offered far greater precision in measuring response times. The length of time, for example, between a word or an image being presented to someone on a screen and their response by clicking a key could be accurately and easily recorded.

Computer Tests of Implicit Attitudes

Once the idea of computer-based reaction tests for implicit memory had been established, it was perhaps only a matter of time before the leap was made into implicit attitude tests. In other words, the memory reaction-speed tests measured how we categorise things, but what about using the same type of test to measure our attitudes towards them?

In the mid-1980s the first implicit attitude priming test was created by the psychologist Russell Fazio and his colleagues: the Evaluative Priming task.

In the mid-1990s the Evaluative Priming task was joined by the Implicit Association Test, a design for implicit attitude testing, created by Anthony Greenwald and his colleagues. Between then and now the number of different implicit response tests for measuring automatic attitudes and evaluations has proliferated. They are used in academic and market research as a way to measure non-conscious processes that would be hard or impossible to accurately probe with other types of measures.

Of course there are other ideas which made a contribution to the development of Implicit Response tests (e.g. statistical analyses) but these are, in my opinion, the four most critical ones.

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