Harvard IAT – How to Beat It and Why Bother – Part II


Several thousand years ago, a well-known man uttered the famous sentence, “Forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

Apparently, making wakeful decisions without realizing what we are doing was more than just a recent discovery. Hidden bias, we’re being told, may well rule all or most of our waking decisions. We may firmly believe we are making conscious choices out of free will.  “It has been postulated, however, that this subjective experience of freedom may be no more than an illusion [1][2] and even our goals and motivations can operate outside of our consciousness [3].”

In Part I, we discussed “unconscious bias” as revealed by the Harvard Implicit Association Test (IAT), and some of the physical and mental mechanics that can help willing subjects achieve a culturally neutral score.  It is reasonable to ask, though, why would anyone want to go to all that effort to defeat a test? Is it cheating, “gimmicking” the test?  Or is it something far less sinister?  Who would want to score “Neutral,” and why?

First, let’s talk about the testing industry itself. If you’re reading this article, you’re most likely a high school graduate who took the SAT/ACT before graduation, and/or College Admission/Placement Exams before getting into a post-secondary school. Few people simply take those tests cold anymore. The competition for college admission and scholarships is too stiff, and the scores count, big time.

For decades, pretest preparation has been an unquestioned and indispensable staple of the educational landscape. Entire organizations like the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) are built on the premise that preparation is fundamental.  Other prestigious institutions including the Kahn Academy validate that thinking. Would any parent or counselor count these as “cheating” or “gimmicking” academic or college testing results? Absolutely not.

Likewise, job interview coaching and preparation is commonplace, and likely no one would encourage a serious candidate to simply, “Don’t worry, walk in there and just be yourself.”

Individual psychological assessment is becoming an intrinsic element of candidate pre-hiring and pre-promotion testing.  Breaking through the barrier to supervision and management often depends on passing rigorous testing, from management skills to leadership assessments and psychometric testing.  Coached preparation for them is a time honored practice.

The idea that practice for a test is “cheating” is, well, not in harmony with centuries of academic and business practice at the highest levels.  Ask any parent of school age children.  From flash cards to test preparation books and courses, it is hardly what you’d call a black market. The sharpest people never take tests with a “Que sera, sera” attitude.

Which brings us back to the issue of assessments of personality, and specifically bias or preference testing.

Have your diversity efforts reached the limits of their ability to impact your organization’s performance and reputation?

That’s the blunt and telling question asked up front in a Cook-Ross sales presentation for enterprise level Bias Testing.  The not-so-subtle implication is that D&I has hit the wall, lost its leading edge perception of performance enhancement or for sustaining legitimacy in making your organization the employer of choice.  Now, for a mere $30 to $40 USD per employee, any organization can regain that edge and leading image in the USA.  A new market leader in Unconscious Bias in the UK,  “Implicity®” ” similarly offers testing and a therapeutic program workbook for what ails your organizational unconscious or your individual hidden psyche for about $105 USD (£62 or €75) per person.  (Implicity® is a registered trademark of Hogrefe, a UK company.)

The Harvard Implicit Association Test has spawned a new facet of the personality assessment and profiling industry, coming soon to an office near you. It is no longer merely about what you know. It is now also about what you didn’t know that you don’t know – about yourself.  Diversity Consultants are diving into the unconscious fray, getting quick certifications to throw themselves in the path of this new wave of managing differences by managing preferences out of the workplace – your preferences.

Should you be worried?

No more so than when you found out you had to take the SATs.  For now, the strength of your bias or your cultural neutrality is yours alone to know. But not for long, whether you’re out looking for a job or not.

The year 2013 was a tipping point in the way people find and are evaluated for jobs, and for promotions. Technology has permanently altered the ability to do two things simultaneously that were once impossible to economically do in tandem. First, the internet has created the ability to cast a global net for virtually any talent need.  Second, assessment testing by computer has created the ability to mine for the most detailed set of qualifications and satisfy virtually all of them without even laying eyes on the top candidates, from credentials to character references to credit ratings.  Thanks to the battery of pioneering online Harvard Implicit Association Tests, HR now has the ability to coax out your innermost thoughts through a keyboard thousands of miles away, things that are secret even to you, without you ever setting foot in their offices for a cup of coffee or to check your teeth.

So, if you could take any of those tests in advance, inexpensively or even free, and as often as you liked until you passed them with ease, would you do it?  Of course you would.  Would it make sense to do it?  Of course it does.  So, save yourself $40 and do it while you can, as often as you can, until you land that “Neutral” score that the new HR Departments are going to want to see for their top candidates.


Can learning to pass the IAT with a Neutral score really help or hide anything? Is it just masking your true preferences?

Again, remember this important Harvard IAT FAQ:  “Unconscious Bias is NOT the same thing as prejudice.”  (See IAT FAQ #16)  Preference is not the monster under your cultural bed.  Just because you may have a preference of one difference over another, it does not mean that you will automatically engage in discriminatory behavior on the job.

Unfortunately, however, it does mean that your preference will show up on a computerized test for bias – unless you learn how to control it on your own.  You do not have to drive yourself into a brick wall of bias testing that may stand between you and the job opportunity of your dreams.

The simple trick is slowing down, relaxing, establishing a rhythm, using the power of conscious deliberation to make the necessary associations, and speeding up commensurate with comfort levels.  We all can do all of those things at any time, and with any learning challenge, not just with bias. Practice at making the associations consistently and at an evenhanded rate is the goal, both in the test, and in our work lives. No one will be perfect at it, but there is a point at which it will be good enough for any job, from entry level to executive.


Is learning how to lower your own bias score any different than learning how to lower your own blood pressure score?  Yes, blood pressure can be manipulated by self-management of the organic expressions and controls for hypertension, dubbed the “silent killer.”  The physical and physiological controls such as emotion, muscular tension, respiration and thought can be converted into the instrumentality for relief from the asymptomatic hypertensive condition, and other dangerous ailments. Why would we not want to do the same for asymptomatic silent bias?

How does that work?


Researchers discovered that the Hamilton Depression Rating Score is subject to reduction by, of all things, Botox injections. Yes, a single dose administered to 30 study participants resulted in “a 47% decrease in depressive symptoms, compared to just 9% in the placebo group.” How? By “paralyzing the glabellar frown region—the area between the eyebrows—with Botox…”  By making it physically impossible to frown, Botox “significantly improved symptoms in depressed individuals,” validating the 1890s “facial feedback hypothesis” of William James who believed there was a link between physical facial expressions and emotional states.

Turning a paralyzed frown upside down would logically follow, and researchers came through. “Findings revealed that all smiling participants, regardless of whether they were aware of smiling, had lower heart rates during stress recovery… there are both physiological and psychological benefits from maintaining positive facial expressions during stress.”

Could we similarly turn implicit bias upside down merely through physical and mental exercises?  The answer is most likely “yes.”  Just as there is no doubt about the connection of physical activity to how we think and feel, there is no doubt about the direct linkage between physical and physiological response and unconscious bias, especially when it comes to race.

“Most abstract intentions are closely linked to some motor action…and it has been proposed that evolutionarily newer functions, such as cultural inventions, could make use of already existing neural structures evolved for more basic but similar functions.”  (Dehaene S, Cohen L (2007) Cultural recycling of cortical maps. Neuron 56: 384–398.)

The Harvard IAT relies on implicit (unquestioning) associations between cultural differences and our perceptions of “good” and “not good.” It tracks and interprets the physical manifestation of that hidden bias. If we force ourselves to physically and mentally make choices that counter our implicit assumptions, and physically make choices that install “psychological chopsticks” to the problem, we can change our bias state, and alter the way our subconscious operates on race, skin color, gender, weight and other preferences. Can we heal ourselves of bias?

The results of the smile experiment were profound. “The participants who were instructed to smile recovered from the stressful activities with lower heart rates than participants who held neutral expressions, and those with Duchenne [genuine] smiles were the most relaxed of all, with the most positive affect. Those with forced smiles held only by the chopsticks also reported more positive feelings than those who didn’t smile at all.”  It genuinely decreased stress.

What does that mean?  It means that we are a two-way street.  Our brain/mind controls all what our body does, but our body can likewise influence the way our brain/mind operates. You and I are only a few completely free keystrokes away from profound change in the way we think and feel about race and how we respond to it, but only if we are willing to do the work.  We can use the Harvard IAT as one tool to do more than simply reveal our bias. We can use it to reverse our bias.  By repeatedly taking the free Harvard IAT and training ourselves to routinely associate Black with “good,” we can most likely save ourselves hundreds or even thousands of dollars on costly bias testing and therapy and get the same or similar results.  We can become CultureNeutral® in at least that facet of our intercultural behaviors.

In addition, we can most likely spare ourselves a series of nasty rejection letters for job opportunities or promotion opportunities that would otherwise be lost to implicit associations and the detrimental test results that would send us packing.


Why do this now? It may be only a matter of time until recruiters and Human Resources Departments will ask job finalists to strap on an fMRI helmet to conduct final interviews with job candidates.  Refusal could be tantamount to declining a lie detector test. More realistically, though, pre-hire assessment centers are universally internet and/or computer based, and thanks to the Harvard IAT, your keyboard could become your worst enemy when the Diversity & Inclusion Police tabulate your bias scores.


The Cook Ross sales pitch sounds a dire warning. Diversity & Inclusion efforts have largely failed to overcome the inertia of workplace culture that creates “ceilings” for women and minorities.  This new wave in the hunt for causation is increasingly pointing away from a ubiquitous corporate culture, and pointing toward “both individual employees or associates, and members of management teams, with the concept of unconscious bias and its impact in the workplace.” In other words, you brought it, you bought it.  The trend is to back away from organizational culpability, and zero in on you.  These days, when it comes to bias, “You brought it, you thought it, you bought it.”

In that environment, hostile to bias, would it be better to be neutral?  Proactively put your brain in training mode, and bring cultural neutrality to work with you each day.  You may keep your preferences, but without prejudice, for the short term. Will it work for the long term? Probably not.  With this or other bias remediation, consistent and long term effort is required for upkeep.  But we’ll deal with that and other issues related to the unconscious realm in future posts.

Remember smoking cessation programs? Bias cessation is now all the rage.  You can wait until you’re invited to HR for a quick assessment, an unconscious bias workbook and a warning.  Or you can start working on it now.  Today, the therapeutic retraining regimen for your unconscious mind is free online, courtesy Harvard University Project Implicit.  It’s a bargain at twice the price.

We will share more tips, techniques and strategies for getting in contact with your subconscious realm, free, in Part III  of this series, “How Unconscious Are We?”  coming shortly.

Return to Part I – Harvard IAT – How to Beat It and Why Bother


To learn more about “neutrality” and the CultureNeutral® Framework, spend more time with us here at InclusiveWorks.

Copyright © Robert D. Jones 2014 – All Rights Reserved

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