What is an Implicit Association Test (IAT)? Types and Examples

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mrx glossary implicit association

This post covers how the Implicit Association Test can reveal underlying, or subconscious, consumer attitudes toward categories, brands, and communications.




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What is the Implicit Association Test?

The Implicit Association Test is a means of uncovering subconscious attitudes that consumers have toward a brand or experience - even ones they'd otherwise find hard to put into words. Consumers naturally have implicit attitudes or associations toward most things in life, and those associations can be difficult to express because they are subconscious thoughts rather than easy to explain using rational thinking.

For example, Apple pie is implicitly comforting for many, while the idea of eating a bug makes most squirm (even if they haven‘t tried one). Similarly, places conjure up different implicit associations - the relaxation of an island getaway, the romance of Paris, or the fond emotions associated with your grandparents’ home.


Associations and attitudes stem from many places and experiences. Media and advertising build certain stories around products and brands, which are subsequently adopted on a mass scale by consumers: the magic of Disney, the fun of McDonald’s, the reliability of Scotch tape. Other associations develop through lived experiences, often ingrained from childhood - the familiarity of a potato chip brand eaten on picnics or the smell of the laundry detergent your parents always used.


However, when researching these associations, respondents can find it difficult to put them into words. They can have an implicit preference for one thing and feel repelled by another - but can’t say exactly why.


The Implicit Association Test (IAT) is a way of uncovering those subconscious associations and establishing the root of consumer beliefs and responses.

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Key characteristics of an Implicit Association Test

An Implicit Association Test asks respondents to pair a stimulus such as an object, person, or concept with an attribute. Crucial to the process is the rapid response time; respondents are asked to pair them as quickly as possible so that they don’t have enough time to rationalize or overthink their answers. This ensures that the associations represent a consumer's true subconscious rather than thought-out (explicit) responses that can differ wildly from gut instincts.

For example, if respondents were being asked what makes them like a brand, socially acceptable answers, like being environmentally friendly, may be rated as more important than items that could be perceived as more self-serving, like helping a person express themselves. However, because implicit methods factor in subconscious associations and preferences, an implicit test may find that those elements that more closely link a brand to an individual are more meaningful than socially acceptable elements. 

One of the fundamental principles of the IAT is that the faster a respondent makes an association, the stronger that association is.

Learn more about quantilope's Implicit Association Test: 

implicit associations webinar


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Types of Implicit Association Tests

Single Implicit Association Test (SIAT) 

The Single Implicit Association Test is an implicit measure used to uncover subconscious associations toward a single category, brand, or product.


For example, you might want to research which emotions your TV advertising concept evokes in a viewer. Respondents would be shown the advertising concept, then (within a certain timeframe) asked to pick words that fit with the concept as well as those that do not. Words might include ‘joyful’, ‘depressing’, ‘uplifting’, ‘inspirational’, ‘confusing’, and so on.

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Multi Implicit Association Test (MIAT) 

The Multi Implicit Association Test works in a similar way to the SAT, but the difference is that respondents are asked to choose from a list of several brands, categories, or concepts, which best fit with certain attributes. Continuing with the example above, respondents would be shown two or more advertising concepts. The IAT scores then determine which of the possible iterations is most uplifting, confusing, joyful, and so on.

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Implicit Association Test Example 

Let's now explore an Implicit Association Test in detail.

Say you’re a sneaker brand that wants to sharpen its brand positioning. 
A Single Implicit Association Test would capture respondents' subconscious reactions toward your sneaker brand (and others), by asking survey takers to quickly decide whether or not a shown trait 'fits' with the brand. 


For example: 

nike carousel

You can decide how many sneaker brands you'd like your respondents to evaluate, which would be shown at random (e.g. Nike, Adidas, Converse).  


Your results will show you where your brand currently stands out in its space, and where there might be open windows of opportunity to work on. 


For example: 

Nike SIAT chartIn the image to the left, we see that Nike (black line) stands out for 'status', while Adidas has some room to go to stand out among these competitors for any of these key motivations. 


Both of the above-mentioned brands gain valuable takeaways from these implicit metrics, knowing where they either need to maintain focus, shift priorities, or work on improving perceptions. 
















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Advantages of the IAT for market research

The IAT is an idea that was first researched in the 80s by social psychology researchers Anthony Greenwald of Washington University and Mahzarin Banaji of Harvard University. Together with Brian Nosek of Virginia University, they founded Project Implicit, an organization dedicated to researching implicit associations and how these correlate with attitudes and behavior. They observed that if people weren’t aware of these implicit tendencies in their thinking, they couldn’t express them via traditional self-reporting survey methods that ask them to state their beliefs. They also found that certain research biases such as social desirability bias (wanting to give a socially acceptable answer to a question) and acquiescence bias (agreeing with the interviewer or other respondents) could mask true associations.


The advantage of an IAT is that any such research biases are eliminated. IATs are conducted online by an individual, so privacy is optimized; there’s no chance of being judged by a researcher, nor being influenced by others’ opinions. The time limit imposed on answering a question is the key to accessing gut reactions rather than explicit attitudes (rationalized responses), as well as uncovering attitudes that people don’t even realize they possess.

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When to use an IAT in market research

We know from research that the majority of purchase decisions - especially those made frequently - are made on gut instinct rather than a thorough rationalization of price versus benefits. Prior experience and associations with products or brands act as shortcuts to the choice being made. It’s therefore valuable for marketing teams and brand managers to know which implicit attitudes consumers have in relation to their category and product.


Some areas in which IATs are useful are:

  • Brand Image: Which traits and emotions are associated with a brand?
  • Communications: How do messages resonate with consumers?
  • Product Features: Which features are thought to be most relevant or necessary?
  • Package Design: Which emotions does a package evoke and how well does it chime with brand image associations?
  • Competitive Landscape: Which associations does a brand evoke versus its competitors?

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How quantilope helps conduct an Implicit Association Test 

quantilope offers both Single and Multi Implicit Association Tests, allowing brands to optimize the more motivating characteristics of their offer to make it relevant to their target market.

Each of these advanced IAT methods are fully automated for simple and high-quality online data collection. quantilope’s intuitive online survey dashboard allows you to present the IAT findings in a clear style with the option to narrow down the data to various respondent groups and see how perceptions differ among different consumers. 


To learn more about Implicit Association Tests and how quantilope can help you can leverage this type of advanced research for your own business needs, get in touch below:

Get in touch to learn more about implicit association testing!



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