Implicit Association

Don't you hate feeling like someone's "looking down" on you? Well, you know who looks down on almost everybody? Tall people. Think about it.

I'm serious. Why is a term that refers to looking down from a physical difference in height equated with condescension or perhaps even sneering? Why does it infer the superiority (height reference) of the person doing the looking over the lowly (height reference) person who's the object of their gaze?

That might seem like meaningless word play. But then consider this:

"... In the U.S. population, about 14.5 percent of all men are six feet or taller. Among CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, that number is 58 percent. Even more striking, in the general American population, 3.9 percent of adult men are six foot two or taller. Among my CEO sample, almost a third were six foot two or taller. ..." - Malcolm Gladwell, Blink

Gladwell goes on to suggest from his data that being short might make it almost as hard to ascend (height reference) to upper (height reference) management as being female or a minority. Historical data about height differences between European aristocracy and the peasantry, caused mostly by nutritional differences, suggests that this implicit association of greater height with fitness to lead has been part of the template of western civilization for a long time and operating among adults of the same ethnicity.  

Next consider that you've grown up in a society where from childhood you've heard religious, fictional and historical stories that referred to things like the "black arts," or the "forces of darkness." Or how about these, LoTR fans, the "Black Rider" or the "the Lord of the Black Lands." One is meant to understand, without needing to be told, that the word dark or black in these usages is a synonym for evil and cruelty, that it refers to something that should be feared and likely hated.  

So we've been taught, all our lives.

Then along comes the Implicit Association Test, or the IAT.

If you take the race IAT, it measures your reaction time in performing a simple task of clicking on a screen to associate positive words with European Americans and negative words with African Americans. Then it asks you to do the opposite; even Black people can be slower at that part.

"... The disturbing thing about this test is that it shows that our unconscious attitudes may be utterly incompatible with our stated values. As it turns out, for example, of the fifty thousand African Americans who have taken the Race IAT so far, about half of them, like me, have stronger associations with whites than with blacks. How could we not? We live in North America, where we are surrounded every day by cultural messages linking white with good.

... But, believe it or not, if, before you take the IAT, I were to ask you to look over a series of pictures or articles about people like Martin Luther King or Nelson Mandela or Colin Powell, your reaction time would change. Suddenly it won't seem so hard to associate positive things with black people. "I had a student who used to take the IAT every day," [IAT co-creator Mahzarin] Banaji says. "It was the first thing he did, and his idea was just to let the data gather as he went. Then this one day, he got a positive association with blacks. And he said, 'That's odd. I've never gotten that before,' because we've all tried to change our IAT score and we couldn't. But he's a track-and-field guy, and what he realized is that he'd spent the morning watching the Olympics. ..." - Malcolm Gladwell, Blink

Electing Barack Obama to the presidency isn't going to bring racism to an end. It just won't. Further, whatever Obama's personal feelings, neither he, nor his election to office, carries the power to absolve the the past or forgive all injury. Only a lot of equality of opportunity over time is going to come close. I presume that you more or less know this, unless you are the average pundit.

Still, the fact is that for the next 4 to (crosses fingers) 8 years, people in the US who aren't Black and pay any attention to the news are going to see an African American First Family acting much as they did on the campaign trail, and they will come to understand, no matter what some demagogue or acquaintance says, that it is perfectly normal.* They're going to see the man who beat out the previously most popular Democrat, followed by the most popular Republican, for the presidency. He'll probably be considered the leader of the Free World, which I didn't think would be possible for an American president again after Bush II.

I expect that it will make a difference, human psychology being what it is. The idea will go from being novel to familiar. It could be that people of different races can be primed to start first interactions off with more positive implicit assumptions about the outcomes. Maybe there will be less fear, less hesitation.

That would be huge, and hopeful, all by itself.

* You have to admit, if you're honest, that a Black Sarah Palin & family would have lost an election for dogcatcher, and their collective gun fetish would have been regarded as a disturbing menace to the peace. Also, that if It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia had Black leading characters, it would be interpreted as a commentary on the sad state of the Black community as a whole, instead of a deeply disturbing 'comedy' about a pack of sociopaths offered for entertainment. And lastly, that being White means you can be unapolagetic in your praise for an artist who sang, "I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die," without anyone thinking that it means anything about either you, or the artist, or White people as a group.

Tags: IAT, Implicit Association Test, Malcolm Gladwell, prejudice, racism (all tags)



doesn't imply tall

I believe your suggestion that one's height is the root of the term is incorrect. In most cultures the people in power usually place them selves on some sort of pedestal, throne, stage, etc. The king's height in relation to his subjects physical height does not prevent him from "Looking down" on them, hence the term. I believe Napoleon is a perfect example of my point!

by eddieb 2008-11-14 03:31AM | 0 recs
Re: doesn't imply tall

good point ..... although was he considered an "outsider"?

by wjbill 2008-11-14 03:47AM | 0 recs
Re: doesn't imply tall

Click on the article. There were broad, noticeable differences between the average height of the aristocracy and the peasant class due to the latter's poor nutrition. When Europeans made the first voyages to the Americas, the average Native American was taller than the average European because of this very problem.

Though look, if there wasn't a subconscious bias towards wanting to be tall, why would it ever occur to anyone that they needed to be up on a pedestal in order to command respect? Where did that impulse come from? Why is it that even though we no longer have a formal aristocracy, we still associate height with leadership? I mean, it's been generations since we had aristocrats and the average American's height is usually about the maximum their genes will allow.

The point is that height means something to us that we're very rarely consciously aware of. The language associations we have with height aren't just random words and obviously matter a great deal to one's lifetime earning potential.

A deviation from the norm such as the statistics show is either intentional, unlikely, or the sign of a strong, likely unconscious, selective pressure. It simply isn't possible, as Gladwell goes on to say, that companies could have a shortage of men of average and below average height in the talent pool.

And Napoleon proves nothing. This isn't about specific individuals, it's about aggregate behavior patterns and norms.

by Natasha Chart 2008-11-14 04:10AM | 0 recs
Re: doesn't imply tall

In your very first sentence you said

"Don't you hate feeling like someone's "looking down" on you? Well, you know who looks down on almost everybody? Tall people. Think about it."

  I think it is fair to say you were using the words "Looking down" as a term of condescension or superiority. My argument was that just being tall in itself does not project condecesion. Short people can "Look down" on you also! Height and size can project more than just condecension. Taller people can project Paternity, leadership, strength and intimidation to name a few. They also are very often "Looked up to" at the same time the are "looking down"on their shorter brethren. I was not disputing the fact that height has given people advantages through the ages. It is also no suprise that this fact has been recognized and used as well as abused ever since mankind first began to stand upright.  

by eddieb 2008-11-14 05:22AM | 0 recs
Re: Implicit Association
I read somewhere at sometime this was an attribute of the old European aristocracy (in-bred) ... and people being simple and uneducated (also in-bred by design) thought the "royals" their "betters" .... remember the czar of Russia wanting only tall guys in his court guard? .....Anyway, the commoners would say "just look at them, they are tall therefore they can lead us" ........ we have come a long way have we not?
I also think this was true (not 100%) for the ally of the aristocracy, the church. They be buddies. Speaking of which did you read the aricle over at americablog about the SC priest? Why does anyone continue to be part of that whole organized religion thing?
by wjbill 2008-11-14 03:45AM | 0 recs
Re: Implicit Association

remind me to read the whole article before I post

by wjbill 2008-11-14 03:46AM | 0 recs
Re: Implicit Association

I imagine it prolly is also rooted in the child parent relationship.  As children or "giant" parents command over us to a lesser or greater extent and often are critical(looking down on) of us.  I think it might also capture the idea that it is a burden on the parent to have to "look down on" you, that if you'd only behave it would be better for everyone.  just my 2 cents, not based on any research.

by goodleh 2008-11-14 03:48AM | 0 recs
Sounds reasonable

I was thinking about that as I wrote this, but I also have no evidence.

by Natasha Chart 2008-11-14 03:54AM | 0 recs
Re: Implicit Association

George Washington was over 6 feet tall. It's written in more than a few places that people felt that 'he should lead something'...

by xodus1914 2008-11-14 03:50AM | 0 recs
Re: Implicit Association

Interesting... most of the executives and bigwhigs I've known have been very short with Napoleonic complexes!

by LordMike 2008-11-14 04:04AM | 0 recs
Re: Implicit Association

According to the numbers, that's about a 40% chance that they're average height or below. And you might very well have to have a lot of confidence to get past that.

But the chances that you'll make it to the very top of a very large organization where you have to face so many more hurdles of subconscious bias, those odds are going to be lower than that you'd make it to the top of a smaller firm (which you might have started yourself), or even to a high level management position. Again, it's about trends, not about predicting for each individual.

Odds are, if you're a Fortune 500 CEO, you have better than even odds of being taller than average. That's all it means, not that shorter people never make it to high places. As it were.

by Natasha Chart 2008-11-14 04:18AM | 0 recs
Re: Implicit Association

I think the investigations into what we say, why we sat it, and what it means are pretty fascinating (cognitive linguistics has made some keen insights into this), and I pretty much agree with where the diary's coming from. But not all 'tall' and 'big' language is necessarily positive (big oaf; how's the weather up there?, etc., also, high and mighty has actually taken on negative connotations in some contexts), and not all 'small' and 'short' language is necessarily negative (good things, after all, do come in small packages). But for the most part, I think you're spot on.

What I'd like to know is if you've come across any data about how tall is too tall. While most CEOs might break the 6 foot barrier, very few of them are closing in on anything like 7 feet. When does 'adequately' tall become 'freakish' (and I use that term not as a judgment, but to reflect the way people tend to think of 'too tall' individuals).

by vadasz 2008-11-14 08:22AM | 0 recs
I always figured the reason

Fortune 500 CEOs are taller than average is because they don't actually do anything. They are hired for their looks, like supermodels.

In real fields, where skill and competence matter, people come in all sizes.

by Sadie Baker 2008-11-14 08:25AM | 0 recs
Re: Implicit Association

There's alot of empirical data supporting the correlation between height and career position attained cited in psychological research studies too.

by phoenixdreamz 2008-11-14 04:10AM | 0 recs
Don't worry

shorties get their revenge in other ways.  I'm 6'6".  Flying is a nightmare.  I can't comfortably drive anything smaller than a full-size.

by JJE 2008-11-14 04:44AM | 0 recs
Re: Implicit Association

Consider that in all of the largest Empires in history i.e. Greek, Roman, British,Russian, American, none have been headed by a popularly elected or otherwise ascended to power, a Black or person of color. In less than one year and only about 220 years of our history we have changed this fact of over 5,000 years of history. Pretty amazing.

On the height thing. I would not read a lot into that. Some people by their bearing appear to be tall. Consider that most people looking at a picture of Gen. Patton would think of him as a tall person when in reality he was about normal 5'10". His regal bearing and attitude marked his as a "tall" man. I read somewhere that the famous macho actor Allan Ladd who always played hero roles was only about 5'6" tall. He made a movie with Sophia Loren who is a rather tall lady and taller than Ladd. In scenes where they appear together the cinematographer had Sophia stand in a hole dug in the ground or had Ladd stand on a platform so they would appear to be the same height. But most movie goers would probably contend that he was a tall man.

by hddun2008 2008-11-14 04:49AM | 0 recs
Re: Implicit Association

The roman emperor Septimius Severus is said to be black and there have been 3 african popes in roman times.

by blueosprey 2008-11-14 07:51AM | 0 recs
I've read somewhere

that movie actors tend to be smaller than average, because small facial features look good on camera and so much of a movie is in close up. Stage actors on the other hand tend to be big, because on stage you are watching their whole body.

If you've ever noticed a crossover, like Kevin Kline, they do look big and ungainly next to regular movie actors, though the good ones (like Kline) make that work for them.

by Sadie Baker 2008-11-14 08:31AM | 0 recs
You're overreaching. BIG TIME.

by spacemanspiff 2008-11-14 05:10AM | 0 recs

Subconscious, snap decision-making based on hidden preferences is a well documented phenomenon. Its cumulative effects are tremendous. For example, another story in Blink relates how orchestras now audition applicants behind screens so they can judge solely on performance, not getting to see the person they hired until they make the decision. It took something that extreme for the hiring judges to be able to overcome their implicit bias against female musicians, a bias many of them were no doubt sincere in believing they did not have.

Maybe it's overreaching to suggest that the ongoing presence on the national stage of a positive Black role model, but that's why I said that I hoped it would have that effect.

Though I'm not arguing that there's some positive effect for tokenism. Watching someone from an historically disadvantaged group genuinely excel, creates positive associations. The book said nothing about some reverse effect, but as I've written before in re Sarah Palin, the whole meaning of using "affirmative action hire" as a derogatory term is to suggest that non-White, non-male applicants just aren't as likely to be good at things.

by Natasha Chart 2008-11-14 01:04PM | 0 recs
Slow news day today?

by gil44 2008-11-14 06:16AM | 0 recs
Re: Implicit Association

A couple of things:

If you are taller than someone it is easier to physically intimidate someone. So any association with height with superiority is based on that which is an ancient tradition in most life on this planet.

On blackness, it's a common thing. But! Our main organ as humans is the EYES. At night when it is Dark/Black our main sensory organ is severely impaired rendering us much more helpless. That's why darkness=evil/bad, it's feared.

by MNPundit 2008-11-14 07:42AM | 0 recs
Also at night our motionvision is much more

prominent -- leading us to be a lot more jumpy.

by RisingTide 2008-11-14 08:03AM | 0 recs
Re: Implicit Association

Since this whole post is talking about generalities and averages, we should note that Latin and Asian men are generally shorter than whites, and they are not usually CEO's.

While I don't argue with the tenet that taller people have some advantages in our society, using the statistics above to show the correlation seems squirrelly to me at best.

In particular, I'd like to see the percentages of men taller than six feet and 6'2" divided by ethnicity, since in addition to being men, most CEO's also happen to be white.  I bet a lot more than 14% of white men in the U.S. are at least six feet tall.

by billycub 2008-11-14 08:18AM | 0 recs
Re: Implicit Association

I think you are on to something. In the corporate world, you see white people in suits and black/brown people in coveralls and it does affect you, whether you realize it or not. Your brain is subliminally trained so that when you do see a black man in a suit, instead of seeing an executive you see "janitor in a suit."

The only thing that can deprogram this training is LOTS more brown and black people in suits.

by Sadie Baker 2008-11-14 08:38AM | 0 recs
Re: Implicit Association

I find it fascinating that most of the commenters were sucked in by the height argument rather than the more important one of the prism of (white)race through which this country generally views everything.

You're onto something.  "Black Palin" would never have made it through even the McCain level of vetting.  I also suspect, in my most cynical moments, that many "Non-African" Americans will be parsing every word and action of President Obama looking for some sign that he's biased in his actions toward "people who look like him".  

"And lastly, that being White means you can be unapolagetic in your praise for an artist who sang, "I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die," without anyone thinking that it means anything about either you, or the artist, or White people as a group."

OTOH, I am going to be unapologetic in my support for the man-in-black.  In the song quoted above the protagonist is simply stating why he's in Folsom Prison and seems to imply that he has regret; if not for the crime itself at least for the fact that it led him to prison.  It does not glorify the action that caused his current status even if we assume that he is, at best, ambivolent about his act of violence.  

by howie14 2008-11-14 09:30AM | 0 recs
If Obama's children were high school dropouts

and one of them an unwed mother-to-be, you don't think America would find it quirky and charming?

Funny how those double standards work.

by Sadie Baker 2008-11-14 10:02AM | 0 recs

I thought that was pretty interesting, too.  

Though yes, certain people will be going over his actions carefully for signs that he's showing favoritism to Blacks in ways that never get brought up when anyone hires a White person. Hiring Whites is perfectly normal, whereas hiring a Black person seems to need a reason.

The thing about Cash, and many other country & western songwriters, isn't that they're somehow bad. I rather like Cash, and grew up listening to Kenny Rogers' songs about gambling, etc., without it seeming to have had much ill effect. It's that singing about being an outlaw is considered interesting and perhaps even touching in the many, many songs in the genre that glorify an outlaw lifestyle. It's not considered to be something that's leading to moral decay, acting nefariously on impressionable young people, that sort of thing.

It's that they get the automatic benefit of the doubt.

by Natasha Chart 2008-11-14 12:16PM | 0 recs
Re: Implicit Association

I have found application of the Implicit Association test to areas such as voting even more interesting. For example, some researchers studies undecided voters and published an article several months back. The researchers showed that even for people who strongly believed they were undecided, when you had those undecided individuals take an implicit association test using Obama and McCain, the results of test (i.e. their implicit answer) was very strongly correlated with their actually vote.

What does this mean? Does it mean that not all "undecideds" are really undecided? Perhaps.

But we also know that you can change you implicit associations (at least temporarily). For example, you can change your result on the race IAT mentioned in the post by watching the Olympics, viewing pictures of positive black people such as MLK, etc.

During the campaign, one of the things I kept wonder about was the extent to which Obama's positive (the ones showing Obama) was influencing people's implicit associations. This would have been an interesting study.  

Anyway, another area where I've seen the implicit association test being used is in the area of people's implicit associations with markets and regulations. Some researchers have developed a test that measures people's implicit preference for regulations and markets.  
 Link for this one: 8/10/23/do-you-implicitly-prefer-markets -or-regulation/

by poserM 2008-11-14 10:37AM | 0 recs


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