Saturday, February 16, 2008

Implicit Association Test: Presidential Edition

There's a new version of the Implicit Association Test up at Pandagon: it's supposed to tell you which presidential candidates you're unconsciously biased towards. I took it, in the interests of science, and found it almost exactly mirrored my conscious thoughts about the candidates. Other test-takers there were divided; some of them found their results matched their conscious preferences, others found some disconnect, like their IAT results had them hating McCain or Huckabee far less than they consciously did, or their IAT showed them more favorable to Hillary Clinton than they had thought they'd be. One commenter, who had taken the test at different points in the campaign, ascribed her increased favorability toward Clinton to empathy for her acquired from the horrible sexist coverage of her campaign.

Having taken some other IATs before, I was actually pretty surprised that the presidential one matched so well. (I've taken the race IAT and the sexuality IAT, thereby discovering that I apparently favor gay white people). I had been (and continue to be) really skeptical that the IAT actually measures internal biases at all, rather than being an indicator of reaction time, mental flexibility or some other trait more closely related to punching keys in response to visual stimuli.

This time, rather than sit around and grumble, I actually hunted around for articles on the IAT, to see if any psych researchers had leveled the same criticisms at it that I did. Sure enough, I found such an article, courtesy of Mixing Memory, who has this to say about IATs in general (italics mine):


In my mind, giving the IAT so much publicity is the most irresponsible thing I've seen in psychology since I began studying it, short of testifying in court that there is scientific verification of the existence of recovered memories (the IAT, at least, has not ruined anyone's life). While the IAT has been publicized (by its authors!) as a measure of implicit attitudes, and even more, as a measure of implicit prejudice, there is no real evidence that it measures attitudes, much less prejudices. In fact, it's not at all clear what it measures, though the fact that its psychometric properties are pretty well defined at least implies that it measures something.

It isn't just guys on the Internet saying this, either. This presentation was given to a 2001 meeting of the Society for Experimental Social Psychology in Spokane, Washington by Dr. Anthony Greenwald, who has published many articles about IATs. The presentation lists the ten biggest problems with the IAT, split into six "measurement" problems and four "conceptual" problems, which are presumably more fundamental. Sure enough, what should #10 be but "Order of combined tasks influences the measure"? (I definitely noticed, while taking the race IAT, and to a lesser extent the presidential one, that my fingers had greater difficulty hitting the right buttons early in the test; by the end, I was pretty decent at it. So if I had been randomly assigned, say, black faces and "good" words, white faces and "bad" words, black faces and "bad" words and then white faces and "good" words, in that order, my results would show up as being strongly white-supremacist, when really I had just taken longer than average to accustom myself to the tasks.)

Other effects I wondered about that were addressed in this presentation were #8, "IAT effects are reduced with repeated administrations" (see my progression from IAT results that surprised me, in the race IAT, to ones congruent with my conscious preferences, in the presidential IAT), #5, "IAT measures are influenced by measurement context variables", #4, "IAT appears to be slightly fakeable" (Neurocritic claims on his blog to have faked the outcome of at least one IAT, and links this 2007 study that finds IAT takers are able to skew their own results when bidden to do so by experimenters) and #1, "How the IAT measures association strengths is not yet well understood."

The American Psychologist article I linked above makes a point strikingly similar to the one Stephen Jay Gould makes about IQ in The Mismeasure of Man,
when he accuses IQ-test proponents of "reifying" the average score on a battery of cognitive tests as "intelligence," when it has never been demonstrated that this average (g) actually describes or predicts anything beyond performance on IQ tests. The article finds a similar reification going on with the scale of implicit bias used in IAT results. What the IAT actually measures are response times for various pairs of words or images, and calculates bias by subtracting average response time for pairings that would conflict with the bias being tested (say, "black" and "good" in the race IAT) from those for pairings that would confirm the bias ("white" and "good" or "black" and "bad"), with a nonzero result indicating bias in either direction. The problem, the article's authors say, is that no one has tried to control for the emotional strength of the words or images. (Indeed, Greenwald's presentation admits that IAT effects are smaller for images than for words, indicating some difference in how the stimuli are processed). A zero IAT score might therefore not actually mean no biases exist, if some of the stimuli are stronger than others and the distribution of more emotionally affecting images favors one side or another. A person might go in with a bias in one direction, but if the images he's confronted with push his emotions the opposite way, he might come out entirely neutral, when really that's the one thing he's never been.

On the presidential-IAT discussion at Pandagon, some of the commenters wondered if the pictures of the candidates were chosen with equal attention to how flattering they were. Each candidate had four photos that flashed onscreen, taken over what seemed to be a broad span of time. Some of them also looked more flattering and polished than others, but it seemed to me at least that each candidate had one good picture, one bad one and two middling ones. But how good someone looks in a photograph is a highly subjective quality; some commenters felt that all of the pictures of some candidates (Clinton and Obama were mention, although McCain was also singled out for having the single ugliest picture) were given unflattering photos.

It's almost as though the IAT were created in a drunken game of "Let's throw as many confounding variables in here as we possibly can"!

Friday, February 15, 2008

Under- and Misdiagnosis of Autism in Women and Girls

In the Introduction to Women From Another Planet?, Jean Kearns Miller et al. point out that the diagnosis of Asperger syndrome has skewed male since its conception:

[Hans Asperger] was aware of the existence of AS girls but explained them away as having a post-puberty syndrome resulting from childhood encephalitis --- as opposed to boys, who are born autistic and therefore have the more "essential" condition. In any case, his subjects were boys; girls were simply beyond his scope. Many years later, Uta Frith attributed the vast disproportion of AS boys over AS girls to genetic transmission that is sex-linked, making AS females sort of an anomaly or fluke. But are we really such an anomaly? Perhaps our invisibility skews the data.

They go on to describe two hypothetical schoolchildren, an autistic boy and girl. Both kids have the same tendency to take things literally and both frequently fail to understand their teachers' and peers' meaning, but the boy is more likely to act on his (mistaken) ideas and get noticed and corrected, and possibly referred to a professional for diagnosis and special help. The girl is more likely to sit in her seat and do nothing, paralyzed by fear that she'll do something wrong and the other children will laugh at her. Because she doesn't say anything, or act out like the boy does, she won't be identified as having problems. Her grades will probably suffer, but nothing will flag her as clearly needing any particular kind of help. She will probably just be considered slow, or lazy.

A real-life counterpart of this hypothetical story can be found here in this ABC News report (via Autism Vox): in a family with two autistic sons, the mother found it exceptionally hard to get her young autistic daughter diagnosed because she exhibited fewer of the classical symptoms. The girl was less unruly and tantrum-prone than her brothers, which autism researcher Brenda Myles ascribes to girls being given much more intensive training in social skills, particularly related to pleasing other people and not being difficult, than boys are. The difference in social training is steep enough, she argues, to mask many of the symptoms in girls, such that the few girls who are diagnosed tend to be more severely affected. (This would fit with earlier observations that diagnosed autistic girls tended to have lower IQs and more associated problems than their male counterparts).

The flip side of this cultural expectation, though, is that those autistic girls who can't mask their strangeness are likelier to be seen as troublemakers or problem children. This "Autobiography of Anonymous" from autistics.org's Autism Information Library details a woman's life bouncing between different diagnoses, with many of the professionals who see her simply blaming her for being difficult or overdramatic. Because boys are given so much more overall latitude in how they behave, they are both more likely to be correctly identified as autistic and more likely to have their difference tolerated, regardless of diagnosis.

Monday, February 4, 2008

I Love Finding Words For Things I Already Do

Having just started the anthology Women from Another Planet?, I can tell that it's going to be full of topics I'm going to want to blog about, so instead of my ususal one or two long posts addressing everything I think is noteworthy about a book, for this book I will do a series of shorter posts about whatever aspects of the book I find resonant. That approach will also be more faithful to the spirit of the book in question, which is written by many women and ranges all over the map in terms of style and content.

The second chapter, "Differences," deals (obviously) with the ways in which autistic women differ from NT women and NTs in general. I will come back to that chapter in a later post, but right now I want to concentrate on one topic in particular, that of nonlinear thinking. All of the women participating in that discussion ("Differences" is written as a dialogue between several participants, moderated and commented on by the chapter's author, Ava Ruth Baker) describe their thinking in spatial terms, and differentiate it from the linear mode of thinking preferred by most NTs. Of particular interest to me is the women's taxonomy of nonlinear thinking, in which they describe two types of thought processes, branched thinking and helical thinking, and the ways in which these differ from linear thinking. It was eye-opening for me to read these descriptions, because I use both of these processes (one more than the other, and sometimes a tweaked version of the other) often.

Sola: Branched thinking occurs when an idea bears several possibilities for development. It is hard for me to choose one and discard the others, till I have examined all of them. So, after dwelling some on one possibility, I have to go back to the original idea and do the same with the other possibilities. This way of thinking, known in computer science as visiting a tree, may be a disadvantage, as it is slower than purely linear thinking. ... But branched thinking makes me a very good programmer and is conducive to science. I use it for problem solving in my own life, as a scientific approach is my preferred way of making sense of my life.

I also used branched thinking a lot, though sometimes rather than follow all the possibilities in sequence I will try to see them all unfolding. It's a thought process similar to the one described in Dune when Muad'Dib first discovers his prescient abilities: time is like a landscape, with hills and valleys, and in his visions he's standing on a hill watching different paths unfold from the particular historical nexus he's standing on at the moment. I can see a particular train of thought in a lot more detail if I look at it individually, as Sola is describing here, but sometimes I also pull back and locate one in context.

Ava: In helical thinking, just as a helix comes back to the same place over and over again but at a different level, so we experience or learn something different, something more refined, each time round. To an observer, the topic or behavior may seem repetitive or monotonous, but inside, our thoughts are evolving.

This is probably the thought process I use more often. I love helical thinking. I love learning something new about a favorite topic that leads me to reexamine the whole thing in a new light; it's what makes it fun to reread books, particularly when you've read more books by the same author and can now recontextualize the first one you read within that author's canon. Indeed, it's this kind of helical thinking that I hope will play more of a role on this blog once I've read and given initial comments on all these books dealing with autism --- I can group them, compare and contrast, follow a theme or metaphor through multiple authors' interpretations of it.

If branched thinking is the science and computer-programming geek's preferred thought process, helical thinking is definitely for lit geeks.