I See Dead People (Taking the Implicit Association Test)

I've blogged about some great papers in the past, but today I'm blogging about the best... paper... ever. It's by Arina K. Bones, of the University of Darache in Monte Carlo, and Navin R. Johnson of Opti Corp, was published in the December issue of Perspectives on Psychological Science (with a subscription, you can read it here, and if you don't have a subscription, you're missing out), and is titled "Measuring the Immeasurable: Or 'Could Abraham Lincoln Take the Implicit Association Test?'" Not to give anything away, but it turns out the answer to that question is a resoundingly tentative "Yes!"

The paper begins with a dilemma: the diminishing number of available IAT participants. Here's how they describe the problem:

Not since Michael Jackson's Thriller, the Chia Pet, or Nixon's "Checkers" speech has creative innovation captured hearts and minds as the Implicit Association Test (IAT; Greenwald, McGhee, & Schwartz, 1998) has. And yet, like other innovations, the IAT is a victim of its own triumph. The merchandising campaign of IAT keychains, wallpaper, bedspreads, and Tony Greenwald action figures (with movable arms and bludgeon) has met with such success that the population of novice IAT takers is diminishing at an alarming rate.1 The viral IATstarted quietly in a few regions of the United States sometime in early 1995 but spread quickly across the U.S. and to Europe and Asia. In the early 2000s, the transmission rate increased exponentially primarily because of a virulent strain that could be transmitted virtually. Center of Social Disease Control projections estimate that the final U.S. IAT virgin will be deflowered on September 15th, 2017 (see Fig. 1) and the last global citizen on October 17th, 2023. (p. 406)

That footnote 1 is important, so I'll quote it here:

The detachable bludgeon had an unfortunate side effect of eliminating dozens of prospective IAT takers before it was taken off the market as a choking hazard. The test proposed in Study 2 may be able to reclaim those lost participants. (p. 406)

Faced with such a seemingly intractable problem, most psychologists, including yours truly, would simply move on, perhaps after writing a paper arguing that everything I'd done up to this point had been so unquestionably proven that no further research was necessary. But Bones and Johnson are no ordinary psychologists, so instead of folding and pretending they'd learned everything they could from the IAT, they decided to search for what they call "outside the box" solutions. And through sheer brain power, they found them.

Their first solution is mind-bogglingly brilliant: unborn babies. There's a seemingly endless supply of them, and since no one has, to date, used them in IAT studies, they are an untapped population. Furthermore, as Bones and Johnson note, "Like people at airports, the unborn have very little to do and are confined to close quarters," making the ideal test subjects. Granted, as a population, unborn babies present certain challenges, of which Bones and Johnson are well aware. For example, their manual dexterity sucks, and they don't really understand words and stuff. Still, they're an untapped population.

Not content simply to have found a new population to study with the IAT, Bones and Johnson actually come up with an important theoretical issue that unborn babies can help resolve: is gender identity innate or learned? If unborn babies show implicit preferences for one or the other gender, this would imply that gender identity is indeed innate. If they show no preference, then it's probably not. So, using a standard IAT procedure, Bones and Johnson sought to determine whether unborn infants tend to associate "Me" with a gender identity and "Not Me" with a different gender identity. After removing one participant's data because it was born during the testing, and recoding all reaction times below 300 ms as 300 ms, and all above 3 seconds as 3 seconds, they found that there was in fact no relationship between the sex of the unborn baby and gender identity. Male and female fetuses (as well as those of unknown sexes) showed the same level of association with both gender identities (the mean reaction time for all three groups for both identities was 3 seconds).

Their second study is even more ingenious. Sure, there are new babies being conceived all the time, but the IAT is so big that even that's not enough. Recognizing this, Bones and Johnson found another untapped population to study with the IAT: dead people. They point out that the work of people like M. Night Shyamalan has called into question the validity of people's self-report about whether they're alive or dead. An implicit measure of life or death is therefore important for both methodological and practical reasons. Here's their experimental setup (from Bones and Johnson's Fig. 5, p. 409):


They had dead people associate words related death (e.g., "joined the choir of the invisible") and words related to life (e.g., "still kicking") with either "me" or "not me." After correcting for scores below 300 ms and above 3 s, as in the previous study, they found a difference. Oh sure, based on traditional tests of statistical significance, the difference wasn't significant, but dead people were faster in associating dead words with "me" and alive words with "not me" (2.9995 s) than alive words with "me" and dead words with "not me" (3 s). If you're curious, you can take the Dead Implicit Association Test here.

Bones and Johnson's success in this second study not only shows that Abraham Lincoln can take the IAT, but, as they suggest, makes the new field of cross-generational psychology possible. Still not content, Bones and Johnson have developed an IAT designed to test whether people are aliens, since, as with death, self-report in this domain is unreliable. You can take the "Human-Alien Identity IAT" here.

Yes, this is a real (though satirical, of course) paper. Here's the reference:

Bones, A.K., & Johnson, N.R. (2007). Measuring the immeasurable: Or "Could Abraham Lincoln Take the Implicit Association Test?" Perspectives on Psychological Science, 2(4), 406-411.

The references in the paper are great. Here are a couple, but I recommend reading the whole thing and laughing your ass off:

Pinker, S. (2005, May). My hair is not girly, it just growed that way: Sex differences are innate. Paper presented at a Festschrift for Lawrence Summers. Cambridge, MA.

Bones, A.K., & Johnson, N.R. (2002). Phil Zimbardo is definitely an alien. American Psychologist, 57, 1135-1142.

I don't know who wrote this (someone associated with the IAT, I assume), but man, I'd like to shake their hands.

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Which dead person gave an answer to lower the average to 2.9995? People are always arguing over which dead person is "spinning in [his|her] grave" and that should settle the question.