People have 3 faces

Personality: The two faces of the self

The controversial implicit association test

Psychologists continue to argue intensely about the sense and nonsense of the implicit association test (IAT). Both proponents and critics have a number of compelling arguments.



  • IAT results can be used to predict future behavior quite well, especially when self-control decreases, for example under the influence of alcohol or time pressure. In such moments, unconscious attitudes gain influence.
  • The test is not as easy to falsify as a questionnaire that specifically asks, for example, about attitudes towards foreigners.


  • The interpretation of reaction times as attitudes or motives lags: associations are not the same as attitudes. Because of their history, African Americans may be associated with negative terms such as slavery and oppression among many Americans of European descent. But that doesn't mean that people have to be prejudiced.
  • Studies show that subjects can manipulate the IAT if it is performed repeatedly by deliberately reacting more slowly.
  • Events immediately prior to the test will affect its result. For example, those who recall famous or successful blacks in advance can react much more quickly to pictures of blacks with the "good button".

Several million people have already processed such a short IAT that can be carried out online. In the meantime, various research groups took Greenwald's method as a model and applied the principle to a wide variety of areas, from attitudes towards homosexuals or East Germans to self-esteem. Much of the knowledge that was gained is surprising. For example, the IAT revealed an implicitly negative attitude towards seniors in around 80 percent of those tested. This is all the more remarkable as most people explicitly do not harbor any resentment towards the elderly.

Cleverly duped

In addition to the IAT, there are a number of other, tricky procedures that are supposed to register unconscious parts of the personality. In 2005, for example, a research group led by social psychologist Keith Payne devised the Affective Misattribution Procedure (AMP). This test does not measure reaction times, but rather meanings and evaluations that people associate with certain objects and events. The test person sees their unknown Chinese characters on a screen and has to guess what the meaning of the character is. Does it stand for something good or bad, something interesting or boring, something threatening or calming?

The trick: a picture or a word appears shortly before the Chinese symbol. Since the person does not know the meaning of the Chinese character, he / she transfers the meaning of the picture or word to the character, according to Payne. If, for example, the abbreviations of political parties (CDU, SPD, FDP) are faded in, CDU voters rate Chinese letters that follow "CDU" better than those that appear after "SPD".

For the detection of unconscious attitudes it is now crucial that the procedure also works if the images or words are only presented subliminally - i.e. so briefly that we do not consciously perceive them. Nevertheless, they have a subliminal effect on us and influence how we evaluate the following character.

In addition to social psychologists, who are primarily concerned with implicit attitudes towards others, personality researchers are also increasingly resorting to indirect methods. For example, they try to track down self-worth and self-concept on a subconscious level. Outwardly, many people are self-confident, but inside them it may look very different. Let's take the colleague who lets it be known at every opportunity that he thinks he is the support of the department. When it comes down to it, however, he often appears insecure and obviously feels uncomfortable in his skin. This pattern does not have to mean that it is a braggart who just wants to cover up its weaknesses. So some people do not just present themselves differently than they are, but their self is contradicting itself - the conscious self does not agree with the unconscious.

Discrepancies between inside and outside

Basically, two forms of discrepancy can occur: The explicit (conscious) self-worth can be higher or lower than the implicit (unconscious). The first of these two discrepancies bring many scientists close to narcissism. The idea behind this is that narcissists try to exude great self-confidence to the outside world because unconsciously pronounced doubts gnaw on them.