Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Testing the Unconscious

Freud called dreams the "royal road to the unconscious," but the authors of the Implicit Association Test seem to claim an ability to measure "implicit cognition" (Is that a euphemism for unconscious?) by using a computer administered psychological instrument.

This approach was previously reported to uncover racial bias in the practice of medicine:, but according to an article in a recent issue of Psychiatric News a variation of the test appeared to predict suicide risk more accurately than by traditional means such as psychiatric interview. I took one of the tests myself. The result was not what I would have expected. Did the test err, or do I simply not know or acknowledge my true attitudes? I suppose the authors might claim the result proves that my attitude is unconscious, but as far as I know no method of tapping the unconscious exists that might provide researchers with a way to validate the results of such a test, except perhaps by looking at my subsequent behavior.

The notion of a test of unconscious intent (Isn't that a contradiction in terms?) sends me on flights of fantasy. I imagine requiring psychiatric patients to undergo testing on a mobile device every 24 hours with results transmitted to a central clearinghouse. If the patient starts to lean toward suicide, the men in white coats home in on their GPS signal, pick them up, and hospitalize them until their attitudes right themselves, with or without treatment. Of course one would have to pass the test before purchasing a firearm, or razor blades, or matches. Or before being allowed to pilot an airplane or drive a car, or cross a street, or climb higher than the first floor of a building. Could we detect future suicide bombers?

Why limit the use of this technology to prediction of suicide, or to psychiatric patients? If such a test could detect intent to rob, rape or kill, to engage in insider trading, run a red light or shoplift, we could require everyone to take it and virtually eliminate crime. Maybe, rather than requiring formal testing, analysis of patterns of Internet use such as Web sites searched or visited could allow, for example, determination of how one might intend to vote in an election. Could such information be used to subtly influence attitude, intent or even religious belief by channeling selected stories through news sites and other media, or even what happens to you when you play World of Warcraft? And since it's all unconscious, how would you know? The possibilities for abuse approach infinity.

Somebody please make a movie!

You can take the tests yourself at:, provided you can reign in your paranoia.

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