Cognitive Inertia and the Implicit Association Test

Claude Messner and Joachim Vosgerau
Journal of Marketing Research (JMR)
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Executive Summary
Marketing researchers are becoming increasingly interested in unconscious influences on consumer behavior. A central concept of such research is implicit attitudes. Implicit attitudes may be better predictors of behavior than explicit (self-reported) attitudes because consumers might be unwilling to reveal their attitudes when they involve stigmatized behavior (e.g., racist attitudes), or they might lack the ability to introspect correctly.

The implicit association test (IAT) has become the most popular tool for measuring implicit attitudes, applied in social psychology, organizational behavior, law, and marketing. Outside the academic realm, the IAT has attracted media attention (e.g., in Blink), been featured on television shows as a tool to uncover implicit racism (e.g., the Oprah Winfrey Show), and been used by marketing research firms as a measure of “true” preferences and brand associations.

For example, in an IAT that measures implicit attitudes toward Coca-Cola and Pepsi, participants would view pleasant and unpleasant words and the target brands Coca-Cola and Pepsi. Whenever a pleasant word or Coca-Cola is presented, they must press the left response key, and whenever an unpleasant word or Pepsi is presented, they are instructed to press the right response key. This task is the first block of the IAT. In the second block, the allocation of the response keys is reversed. The left response key is now pressed for pleasant words and Pepsi, and the right response key is pressed for unpleasant words and Coca-Cola. In contrast with the first block, Coca-Cola shares a response key with unpleasant, and Pepsi shares a response key with pleasant. The order of the two IAT blocks typically is varied between subjects. The difference in response latencies in the two blocks indicates an automatic preference for Coca-Cola over Pepsi (or vice versa).

Researchers must be careful in interpreting IAT effects because of the cognitive inertia inherent to the IAT task. Cognitive inertia denotes the difficulty of switching from one categorization rule in the first block to the opposite categorization rule in the second block. Response latencies are slower in the block that is administered second, and IAT effects depend on the order in which the two blocks are administered. When the faster block comes first, cognitive inertia slows down responses in the subsequent block, thus enlarging the IAT effects. When the slower block comes first, cognitive inertia slows down responses in the faster block and thus decreases the IAT effects.

The authors demonstrate that cognitive inertia can eliminate (Study 1) and even reverse (Studies 2 and 3) IAT effects. Cognitive inertia distorts individual IAT scores and drastically reduces correlations with predictor variables. In Study 4, the authors eliminate cognitive inertia effects by manipulating the block order repeatedly within instead of between subjects.

Researchers must be cautious when using the IAT. When individual IAT scores are of interest, such as when the IAT scores are to be correlated with predictor variables, researchers should manipulate the block order repeatedly within subjects. This article provides a guide to best practices for IAT research.

Claude Messner is Lecturer in Psychology at the University of Basel (Switzerland). He earned his diploma in Psychology from University of Konstanz, Germany, and his doctoral degree from the University of Basel. Claude’s research interests fall in the realm of unconscious processes—specifically, how unconscious processes influence attitude formation, consumer behavior, and personnel selection. His research has been published in Journal of Consumer Research, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, European Review of Social Psychology, and Journal of Experimental and Social Psychology.

Joachim Vosgerau is Assistant Professor of Marketing in the Tepper School of Business at Carnegie Mellon University. He earned his diploma in Psychology from University of Konstanz, Germany, and his PhD in Management/Marketing from INSEAD, France. Joachim’s research interests include consumer behavior; he is specifically interested in how experiences and illusions influence judgments and decision making. He is also working on research methodologies, such as the implicit association test. His research has been published in Journal of Consumer Research, Marketing Science, Journal of Marketing Research, and Journal of Consumer Psychology.

Journal of Marketing Research, Volume 47, Number 2, April 2010
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Claude Messner and Joachim Vosgerau
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