The Situationist

The Situation of Being “(un)American”

Posted by The Situationist Staff on October 13, 2008

Shankar Vedantam has written another terrific (situationist) article, “Does Your Subconscious Think Obama Is Foreign?,” published in today’s Washington Post.  Here are some excerpts.

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A few years ago, psychologists [and Situational contributor] Mahzarin Banaji and Thierry Devos showed the names of a number of celebrities to a group of volunteers and asked them to classify the well-known personalities as American or non-American. The list included television personality Connie Chung and tennis star Michael Chang, both Asian Americans, as well as British actors Hugh Grant and Elizabeth Hurley. The volunteers had no trouble identifying Chung and Chang as American and Grant and Hurley as foreigners.

The psychologists then asked the group which names they associated with iconic American symbols such as the U.S. flag, the Capitol building and Mount Rushmore, and which ones they associated with generically foreign symbols such as the United Nations building in Geneva, a Ukrainian 100-hryven bill and a map of Luxembourg.

The psychologists found that the participants, who were asked to answer quickly, were dramatically quicker to associate the American symbols with the British actors, and the foreign symbols with the Asian Americans. The results suggest that on a subconscious level people were using ethnicity as a proxy for American identity and equating whites — even white foreigners — with things American.

The psychologists initially assumed that this bias began and ended with Asian Americans and would not apply to other ethnic groups. But in another experiment involving famous black athletes around the time of the 2000 Sydney Olympics, they found that the same pattern applied to African Americans. . . .

“The reason this is powerful is it shows our minds will not just distort our preferences but distort facts,” said Banaji, who works at Harvard. “African Americans in their [own] minds are fully American, but not in the minds of whites.”

The experiments, based on tests that are accessible at http://implicit.harvard.edu, have provoked controversy — especially in terms of what they mean. It may embarrass people when they subconsciously associate whites with being American, but does that matter? If people have no trouble distinguishing Americans and foreigners in their conscious minds, why should we care about their subconscious tendencies?

It may matter a lot when it comes to voting behavior, the researchers said.

In a new series of experiments, Devos has shown that the “white equals American” bias could well be playing a powerful role in the presidential election.

* * *

[The article then summarizes Devos’s (and Debbie Ma‘s) latest research indicating (1) that people more quickly associate Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, Sen. John McCain, and Tony Blair with being American than they do Sen. Barack Obama and (2) that the subconscious associations mattered (that is, that both Republicans and Democrats “who were slower to see Obama as American on a subconscious level were less likely to be willing to vote for the senator from Illinois than people who more easily associated him with American symbols”), (3) that although this source of voting bias is subtle, it is still “clearly a drag on Obama’s prospects,” and (4) that it “may help explain why Obama has proved vulnerable to negative messages that question his identity and his loyalty to America.”]

* * *

“We cannot think of him as frightening or a likely criminal — he is the antithesis of that,” Banaji said. “So when the mind goes searching for reasons to distrust him, the first thing it lands on are the foreign connections” — Indonesia and Africa, places to which Obama has ties.

“Suggesting Obama is foreign or unknown offers a cover for racism,” she said. “You can’t say he is black and unfit to be president, but you can say that he is Muslim and therefore unfit to be president.”

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Read the entire Vedantam article here.

Take our Policy IAT here.

For some posts examining the the role of implicit associations in elections, see “Patricia Devine on Resisting Implicit Associations,” The Interior Situation of Undecided Voters,” On Being a Mindful Voter,”Lopez-Torres, Justice Scalia, and the Situation of Elections,” “Your Brain on Politics,” “Implicit Associations in the 2008 Presidential Election,”The Situation of Political Animals,” “Political Psychology in 2008,” “Perceptions of Racial Divide,The Psychology of Barack Obama as the Antichrist,” and “The Interior Situation of Undecided Voters.”

To review all of the 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 other Situationist posts on the 2008 Presidential Election, click here.

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One Response to “The Situation of Being “(un)American””

  1. […] generated) • World Illusions 8-19-08 • Could have been worse! Know what I mean? • The Situation of Being “(un)American” • Beyond Hope: The Racial Significance of Obama’s Campaign Posted in symbolism. […]

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