The man who made us look

Psychology professor Anthony Greenwald developed the Implicit Association Test, a rapid-fire survey that reveals the biases that lurk inside us. Twenty years later, the test remains relevant—and world-famous.

Tony Greenwald’s office in Guthrie Hall is a welcome refuge on one of those winter days when cold rain pours from the skies: cozy with books and papers, and walls covered with images of jazz musicians, including Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk.

Greenwald is a professor of psychology who is world-famous for his work on implicit bias and the development of the Implicit Association Test. What is implicit bias, you ask? It’s bias that can influence your behavior without your awareness.

Surprising findings of his research, he observes, are “that women show male-favoring implicit biases even more strongly than do men, and preference for racial white is shared by a surprising 80 percent of white Americans.”

When I tell him, “I feel like there is someone inside me who possesses attitudes I reject. Those attitudes probably affect my behavior and how I treat people in ways I’m not aware of.” With a genial smile, he says, “That’s a good description.”

In 2005, Greenwald and colleagues started a nonprofit organization called Project Implicit. Anyone can take multiple tests there, to observe thoughts and feelings that of which they may be unaware.

These include the race attitude test, first taken by Greenwald when he created it in 1995. He was unhappy then to discover his automatic preference for white.

“I thought I could undo it by practicing on the test, but that didn’t work,” he says. “I repeatedly show the same result that many others do.” There is also what’s known as the male virtuoso problem, which meant that for decades women had trouble getting hired to play in symphony orchestras because males were thought to be better musicians. Having the applicants play behind a screen meant judges couldn’t see the applicant. That’s when the rate of hires of women increased.

Greenwald, who has taught at the UW since 1986, has a keen sense of humor. His office’s work table features a polished rock inscribed with the words, “Nothing is written in stone.” This brings up Greenwald’s interest in helping organizations to reduce bias through fair policies and procedures.

For example, in courts of law, race bias affects peremptory challenges—African Americans are disproportionately dismissed from juries when the defendant is African American. He is urging Washington’s Supreme Court justices to track these dismissals to support possible fixes, and he also works with judges on developing jury instructions to combat implicit bias.

Before he started tackling the weighty matters of bias, Greenwald “used to be a bebop trumpet player,” he says. His father, composer and music director for “The Sid Caesar Show,” gave him opportunities to see world-class musicians at work. Greenwald concluded that “maybe my brain would be a better instrument for me than the trumpet.”