Quick! Match the person with the noun:
Woman Test Tube
Husband Liberal Arts
That’s not a real psychology test, of course, but it’s a play on what’s called an “implicit association test,” a type of activity that psychologists ask study participants to perform in order to determine whether they might secretly harbor, in this case, sexist ideas.
In these and similar types of studies, psychologists have long relied on reaction times to hint at hidden prejudices. For example, even avowed feminists might be slower to associate female names with science and technology careers.
“These snap judgments we often make happen quickly, in just hundreds of milliseconds,” Jonathan Freeman, a psychology professor at Dartmouth, told me.
But as far as human measurements go, reaction time is pretty one-dimensional —it only tells the scientist that a person took longer to make a certain choice, but not how they ultimately arrived at their decision. So a few years ago, Freeman sought to tap into the mind of a study subject as he or she wrestled with categorizing, say, a woman with a masculine haircut as a “male” or “female.”
The solution he came up with is a software called MouseTracker. It involves following the subject’s mouse movements as they drag a given object across a screen and toward a pair of descriptor words. For example, here’s that haircut study, as performed with MouseTracker:
The goal is to measure to what extent the participant considered the alternative before ultimately settling on the “right” word. Freeman thinks mouse tracking improves upon older metrics, like response time, because it creates “a continuous stream of rich cognitive output.”