The Situationist

Implicit Associations in the 2008 Presidential Election

Posted by The Situationist Staff on March 24, 2008

obama-mccain.jpgGregory Scott Parks and Jeffrey J. Rachlinski have posted a new paper, “Unconscious Bias in the 2008 Presidential Election,” on SSRN. Here is the abstract:

The 2008 presidential campaign and election will be historic. It marks the first time a Black person (Barack Obama) and a woman (Hillary Clinton) have a real chance at winning the Presidency. Their viability as candidates symbolizes significant progress in overcoming racial and gender stereotypes in America. But closer analysis of the campaigns reveals that race and gender have placed enormous constraints on how these two Senators can run their candidacy. This is not surprising in light of the history of race and gender in voting and politics in America. But what is perhaps more surprising is how the campaigns have had to struggle not only with overt sexism and racism, but with unconscious, or implicit, biases in their campaigns. Recent research from social psychologists indicates that unconscious race and gender biases are widespread and influence judgment. Because existing anti-discrimination law is designed to combat overt, or explicit, biases, it does not address unconscious biases well. If even Senators Clinton and Obama, with an array of consultants and advisors behind them, find unconscious racism and sexism to be a stumbling block in what is nothing more than the most elaborate, grandest job interview of them all, then what must it be to the average Black person or woman seeking a job or promotion?

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Gregory Parks published a two-part series on Huffington Post in February about this research (link to Part I or Part II). We have excerpted sections of those posts below.

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In areas dominated by whites, black electoral success is rare. Not all researchers have found an interactive effect of voter and candidate race. Those who have not, however, have indicated one major methodological shortcoming of their, respective, studies — the possibility that study respondents were not honest about their opposition to black candidates. As such, a better predictor of the role that race plays in voter decision-making would be their implicit attitudes about race. With that in mind, let me make a few points:

An implicit construct is “the introspectively unidentified (or inaccurately identified) trace of past experience that mediates [the category of responses that are assumed to be influenced by that construct].” Implicit cognition reveals mental associations that people do not want to or are unable to report. This is because such cognitions might conflict with expressly-held values or beliefs, or such cognitions may be politically incorrect. Moreover, implicit cognitions reveal information that is not readily available to introspection for people with a desire to retrieve and/or express such information. Therefore, the key feature of implicit measures of attitudes is that subjects are often unaware that their attitudes are being measured and are thus unable to exert conscious control over their responses. The Implicit Association Test (IAT) is a popular measure of the relative strength of associations between pairs of concepts, including positive/negative attributes and race.

A large percentage of whites harbor anti-black/pro-white biases — some 70-90%. That means that they demonstrate an implicit preference for white over black, manifest as faster responding for the white/pleasant combination than for the black/pleasant combination. These results are quite robust as seen in individual experiments with dozens of subjects as well as in web-based studies of hundreds of thousands of individuals.

Implicit racial bias is not a mere abstraction. It is linked to the deepest recesses of the mind — particularly the amygdala. The amygdala is a part of the brain that is involved in emotional learning, perceiving novel or threatening stimuli, and fear conditioning. Neuroscience research indicates that whites’ amygdalas are activated far more when they are subliminally shown black faces as compared to white faces. Moreover, the degree of amygdala activation is significantly correlated with participants’ IAT scores. Implicit racial bias is also implicated in numerous forms of seemingly benign as well as consequential behavior.

One important study that should be mentioned demonstrated how “racialized” names trigger racial schemas. Researchers responded to more than 1300 help-wanted ads in Boston and Chicago with fictitious resumes. The resumes were crafted to be comparably qualified with the only difference being that half of the resumes were randomly assigned stereotypically black names (e.g., Lakisha Washington). The other half were assigned “white” names (e.g., Emily Walsh). The white resumes received 50% more callbacks. Jerry Kang (UCLA law professor [and Situationist contributor]) rearticulated these results in terms of racial schemas such that employers use the names of applicants to categorize applicants into racial categories. Once the names are racially mapped, some set of negative racial meanings are automatically activated. In turn, these stereotypes and prejudices result in fewer callbacks for blacks.

Implicit racial attitudes not only predict behavior, generally; they also predict voting behavior. I think most folks can understand that political conservativism is positively correlated with automatic associations between black/bad and white/good. However, among Democrats, those who hold the least favorable implicit attitudes towards racial minorities are nearly four times less likely to prefer a racial minority candidate over a perceived white candidate. This is compared to Democrats who hold the most positive implicit views towards a racial minority candidate.

clinton-mccain.pngA voter’s implicit biases do not have to dictate how they will vote in the 2008 election or any other election. Individuals who harbor implicit biases, and who wish to be unfettered of those biases, may de-bias themselves and cast their vote based on where candidates stand on issues and not their race or gender. Current models of prejudice and stereotype reduction contend that the reduction of such attitudes require that individuals must: 1) be aware of their bias; 2) be motivated to change their responses because of personal values, feelings of guilt, compunction, or self-insight; and 3) possess cognitive resources needed to develop and practice correction. Of note, whites who are more internally motivated to reduce their levels of race bias show less implicit prejudice, whereas those who are more externally motivated display more implicit prejudice. Furthermore, repeated exposure to an admired black person (e.g., Denzel Washington) and a disliked white person (e.g., Jeffrey Dahmer) decreased the magnitude of automatic preference for whites over blacks. And this reduced race preference effect was not fleeting; it endured for at least 24 hours.

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. . . . [I]n light of this research, generally, how do I make sense of the caucuses and primaries? Political science research and accounts of the Bradley, Dinkins, and Wilder elections give some hint as to what took place in Iowa in and New Hampshire. I sense that in Iowa, given that caucuses are conducted such that others are aware of your vote, Whites were less apt to be guided by implicit bias and vote for the White candidates, because they had to be publicly accountable for their votes. In the New Hampshire primary, no public accountability took place and thus no checking of implicit attitudes at the door. Additionally, part of what might explain New Hampshire is the noted study on exposure to liked (Black) and disliked (White) persons. Obama and Clinton were near polar opposites on the likeability spectrum, which may have abated some Whites implicit racial attitudes vis-à-vis he and Clinton. However, her noting during the New Hampshire debate that she was hurt by not being “liked” by voters and then tearing-up at the café, she served to humanize herself. In doing so, she may have unwittingly washed out the effect of this Black (liked)/White (disliked) contrast and its diminishing effect on Whites’ implicit racial bias.

Lastly, what has likely gotten Obama this far among Whites is their efforts to check their implicit biases at the door when caucusing or voting during primaries. If South Carolina is any indication, however, he still has a long way to go. It seems that he may be able too broaden his appeal among White voters, but he is short on time. If Whites with egalitarian beliefs wanted to truly consider Obama’s candidacy free of implicit racial bias, many could, but Obama’s difficulty is that neither he nor his campaign can directly raise the issue of White “prejudice” dampening his votes among them. It would be nice if Whites knew their implicit racial biases (by taking the IAT) and then sought to square those biases with their professed, non-racist attitudes. In addition to various forms of external debiasing, I think this is the only way Obama truly has a shot at the presidency.

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To visit the Project Implicit website and find out more about implicit associations, click here. Click here to take the “PRESIDENTIAL CANDITATES IAT.” To review previous Situationist posts discussing implicit associations click on the “Implicit Associations” category in the right margin or, for a list of such posts, click here.

For a sample of previous posts examining situational elements of voting or, specifically, the 2008 presidential election, see On Being a Mindful Voter,”Lopez-Torres, Justice Scalia, and the Situation of Elections,” “Heart Brain or Wallet?” “Your Brain on Politics,” “Al Gore – The Situationist” and “Irrelevant Third Options in Presidential Campaigns.”

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