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Implicit Association Test Flawed

Vosgerau-feature-story-thumbnail-68x68Since1998, unconscious brand preferences or even discriminatory biases have been measured by a popular, easy-to-administer tool: the Implicit Association Test (IAT). Recently, Joachim Vosgerau, Assistant Professor of Marketingat Tepper, and his colleague Claude Messner, Lecturer of Psychology, University of Basel, Switzerland,have proved that the test has a flaw that can skew the results, with important implications for legal cases as well as brand market research. They discuss their results in the article“Cognitive Inertia and the Implicit Association Test,” appearing in the April 2010 issue of the Journal of Marketing Research.

“Marketing researchers are increasingly interested in unconscious influences on consumer behavior,” says Vosgerau. “A central concept of such research is implicit attitudes, which may be better predictors of behavior than explicit (self-reported) attitudes because consumers might be unwilling or unable to correctly reveal their attitudes and preferences.  But the IAT that measures these preferences has an important design flaw.”

He adds that the IAT has become a widely popular tool, applied in social psychology, organizational behavior, marketing, and even the law. “The IAT was featured on the Oprah Winfrey Show in 2007 as a tool to uncover implicit racial biases, and IAT findings are currently being used in Dukes v. Wal-Mart, the largest class action employment discrimination case that has ever been convened to go forward against Wal-Mart.”

The IAT itself is easy to understand. In an IAT that measures implicit attitudes toward, for example, Coca-Cola and Pepsi, participants view pleasant and unpleasant words, first separately and then in conjunction with the target brands. The difference in the subject’s rapidity of response in the various testing blocks indicates the subject’s unconscious preference for one brand over another.

However, Vosgerau’s study shows that simple cognitive inertia—the difficulty in switching from one categorization rule to another—rather than unconscious preferences explains an important part of the IAT effect at the individual (rather than the aggregate) level.

“Basically, a subject learns to associate pleasant words with the first brand tested and becomes faster at this association as the test progresses. To reverse this learning and associate the pleasant words with the second brand takes time and practice. In other words, because of cognitive inertia, every subject will be slower with the second block of the test, causing the second brand to appear unconsciously less attractive than the first brand. We make recommendations for best practices in administering the IAT, and this is a very important finding for market researchers.”

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Mark D. Burd

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Tepper School of Business
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