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20th March 2018

How do unconscious bias tests work?

Harvard published their first implicit bias test in 1998, and ever since debate has raged about whether they actually work!

Like many other providers of unconscious bias training we recommend people complete unconscious bias tests. But what should they expect? And how do the tests work?

Project Implicit or Implicitly?

Project Implicit launched in 1998. The original unconscious bias test, it was created by scientists from the University of Washington, University of Virginia and Harvard. The Project Implicit tests are available for free online. The tests include:

  • Race
  • Religion
  • Disability
  • Gender
  • Sexual Orientation

The tests indicate where your level of bias sits within the general population. This means that the tests don't actually show whether the taker has biases, just whether they are more or less biased than other people.

We typically use the the Implicitly test. Implicitly is the online tool from Dr Pete Jones, the UK's leading applied subject matter expert on unconscious bias.

Implicitly differs from Project Implicit with its wider range of tests, adherence to UK and EU data protection laws and criterion based scoring. Criterion based scoring indicates how biases may impact behaviour. This means Implicitly delivers results which can be understood and has actions that people can take.

What happens during the tests?

Quiz paper

Unconscious bias tests involve matching words and pictures to "positive" and "negative" categories. This usually involves using the arrows on a keyboard, although Project Implicit uses the "e" and "i" keys.

Words pop up in the centre of the screen, and you sort the words into the positive and negative categories. The next part of the test includes the pictures. You will be sorting the words to left and right, as before, but will also be sorting the images to left and right. For example, you may be sorting black faces and positive words to the left, with white faces and negative words to the left.

You are then asked to sort the pictures to the opposite side. The tests move through all possible combinations of words and pictures on each side, and you will complete at least four parts to each test.

What happens after the tests?

If you completed Harvard's test, you'll receive your result immediately. If you complete Implicitly as part of an enei unconscious bias programme, you will receive your results after your training session.

Why do we do this? We design our ILM accredited unconscious bias training with change in mind. So, our training sessions equip you with the tools to be aware of your biases before revealing what they are.

With Implicitly, your results will categorise biases in four areas. These are:

  • Low - you show no bias or a weak bias that is unlikely to affect your behaviour
  • Mid-range - a moderate preference for one group over another which may affect your behaviour without you being aware
  • Elevated - a stronger preference for one group, with a strong probability that you give off unintentionally negative signals
  • High - a very strong preference for a certain group, with a high likelihood that you will be demonstrating biased behaviours

We reveal your results after the training session so you are able to learn about the implications of your biases before you know what they are.

Problems with unconscious bias tests

Whilst unconscious bias tests are a reliable indicator of your preferences towards or against certain groups, they aren't perfect. Like any exercise, with enough practice it is possible to achieve an artificial result. However, most people are unlikely to take the tests enough times to reach this stage.

Unconscious bias tests also have weaknesses when it comes to non-binary choices. For example, a test comparing biases for white and BME groups doesn't identify any differences between BME groups. You could have a strong bias towards East Asian groups and a strong bias against Middle Eastern people, and this wouldn't reflect in the results.

What unconscious bias testing does do though is make you think. Combined with training on the causes and implications of bias, the test results allow you to reflect on the actions you are taking daily. Awareness of your biases means you can make changes and be more aware of how you are acting around employees and clients.


Get in touch now to learn how unconscious bias training and tests can drive your diversity agenda