January 24, 2009

Obama and stereotypes

When Barack Obama got elected I wondered how it might affect stereotypes and vulnerability to stereotypes. Stereotypes, and the feeling of being stereotyped, can have some strong effects on performance. Researchers like Joshua Aronson and Claude Steele have done studies on stereotype vulnerability (the tendency to expect, perceive, and be influenced by negative stereotypes about one’s social category) which allow for some optimistic expectations on bridging performance gaps between different social and ethnical groups (read my earlier posts: Stereotype vulnerability research: bridging social and ethnical performance gaps, 5 Experiments that make you think, and Self confirming beliefs). I wondered whether Obama's election might both lessen stereotypes about Afro-Americans and strengthen a growth mindset in this group.

An article in the New York Times (Study Sees an Obama Effect as Lifting Black Test-Takers), describing research by Ray Friedman, David M. Marx and Sei Jin Ko gives some first indications. Ray Friedman: “Obama is obviously inspirational, but we wondered whether he would contribute to an improvement in something as important as black test-taking. We were skeptical that we would find any effect, but our results surprised us.”

In the study In the study made public on Thursday, Dr. Friedman and his colleagues compiled a brief test, drawing 20 questions from the verbal sections of the Graduate Record Exam, and administering it four times to about 120 white and black test-takers during last year’s presidential campaign. In total, 472 Americans — 84 blacks and 388 whites — took the exam. Both white and black test-takers ranged in age from 18 to 63, and their educational attainment ranged from high school dropout to Ph.D. On the initial test last summer, whites on average correctly answered about 12 of 20 questions, compared with about 8.5 correct answers for blacks, Dr. Friedman said. But on the tests administered immediately after Mr. Obama’s nomination acceptance speech, and just after his election victory, black performance improved, rendering the white-black gap “statistically nonsignificant,” he said.
Update: In a Newsweek article by Sharon Begley, researcher Joshua Aronson comments on this study
"I asked Joshua Aronson of New York University, one of the founders of the research on stereotype threat, what he thought of the study. “They hypothesis [that Obama’s success might eliminate stereotype threat for blacks] makes a lot of sense,” he said. “Studies have shown that even a brief intervention [like watching Obama’s Denver speech] can nullify a stereotype. But the big problem is that . . . participants were not randomly assigned to condition; rather, they self-selected. There looms the strong possibility that the participants who chose to watch Obama's speech and chose to be in the study are the type of students who would be inspired by him and whose test performance would be boosted by thinking about him.” To be sure, there was no such self-selection for the final test condition, after the election; then, everyone knew that Obama had won, and the test-score gap also vanished." Read complete article here.

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