The Situationist

Posts Tagged ‘Hilary Clinton’

Hillary Clinton, the Halo Effect, and Women’s Catch-22

Posted by The Situationist Staff on December 10, 2008

Hillary Clinton DollMerritt Baer is a Harvard Law School student living in Cambridge, Massachusetts.   This semester, she wrote the following brief essay for a seminar on situationism.  We are delighted to publish it on The Situationist (the essay and some worthwhile comments  also can be found on GlobalComment).

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In her concession speech, Hillary Clinton dedicated her gratitude “to the moms and dads who came to our events, who lifted their little girls and little boys on their shoulders and whispered in their ears, ‘See, you can be anything you want to be.’”

Yet given the scrutiny dedicated to her pantsuits, Hillary’s vision of possibility seems limited. Indeed, a new study by researchers led by Northwestern University’s Joan Y. Chiao and just published on October 31 found that while men need only seem competent in order to be electable, women need both competence and attractiveness.

Palin was selected in the aftermath and with the awareness of how Hillary was characterized as not attractive or even female enough. In a sense this draws new justifiability for Sarah Palin’s reportedly lofty budget for aesthetics, from hair stylists to department store budgets. It seems that if she had not spent time and money on her appearance, she could have suffered yet more critique.

Even CNN’s Campbell Brown, who was far from a Palin supporter, said “There has been plenty of talk and plenty written Hilary the Nutcrackerabout Sarah Palin’s jackets, her hair, her looks . . . .When I wear a bad outfit, I get viewer email complaining about it. A lot of email. Seriously.” She continued dryly, “When Wolf Blitzer wears a not-so-great tie, how much email do you think he gets?” She makes a good point.

Meanwhile, in the midst of the pressure to look good, there is the catch-22 at work: Bill Maher calling Palin a stewardess, movies of her in a swimsuit for a beauty pageant becoming the hot new YouTube video to circulate, and widespread sexualization of Palin becoming a favorite American pastime.

It seems clear that attractiveness in general plays a part in the reception a politician gets. However, Barack Obama’s handsomeness contributed to his campaign strongly in positive ways – even becoming part of his branding, as his profile was featured on t-shirts and buttons. For Sarah Palin’s naughty librarian beauty, there is a cost to the attractiveness factor: Palin was not merely attractive, she was sexy.

And while Chiao’s study suggests that female politicians need to be perceived as both attractive and competent, a sexy woman just does not go with competence. (When does attractiveness intersect with or become sexiness? I am not entirely sure–perhaps it is merely being very attractive that veers into the category of sexy, although it seems also to encompass those who for some reason capture the public imagination, like Palin’s rough-and-tumble hobbies.)

On the contrary, female sexiness triggers that animalistic side of our brains that seems opposed to intelligent thought (while male sexiness seems often to derive from and contribute to their aura of powerfulness). Thus audiences were primed to find Palin incompetent, and eager to hear the latest evidence. Not knowing Africa was a continent was perfect news.

Yet of course Obama – and all of the other candidates – had his share of campaign gaffes. When Obama stated on camera that he had visited 57 states, no one rushed to the conclusion that he actually didn’t know the 50 states–instead, people looked for explanations: well, maybe he was including US territories. Never mind that the New York Times now reports that Palin’s Africa gaffe was leaked by a fake blogger under the auspices of a fake think tank – the story had already taken a life of its own. We looked for reinforcements of Palin’s incompetence, and we found them.

Sarah Palin VogueIn some ways, this catch-22 lends a new dimension to the “halo effect” – the idea that an attractive person is advantaged because of their attractiveness. The attractiveness halo effect was first documented by social psychologist Solomon Asch, but we may know it anecdotally to be true that attractive people tend to have more success both professionally and in the dating arena. It’s one of the reasons we have celebrity endorsements–attractiveness influences our overall perception of the person such that we assume their preferences for a product are as desirable as their looks.

Yet the disturbing implication is that while the halo effect works in purely positive ways for men, for women attractiveness is both even more necessary (see Chiao’s study) and often simultaneously crippling (see Palin’s representations).

After the final presidential debate between Obama and Mccain, newsanchor Katie Couric asked Hillary Clinton, “Why do you think Sarah Palin has an action figure and you have a nutcracker?” Clinton replied that she didn’t know. But Hillary Clinton knows better than anyone that capturing the American audience as a woman is a balancing act.

The constant criticism dedicated to Hillary’s pantsuits culminated in the marketing of a “Hillary Clinton nutcracker,” in which her thighs serve as the nutcrackers (perish the thought of imagining what a comparable doll would look like for Obama…?) Meanwhile, Sarah Palin, who took a cue and opted for the skirtsuit and heels, became the subject of sexualized mockery. Interesting too that often, the originators of derogatory material directed at both Clinton and Palin were from the ideological left, a position we associate with progressive and tolerant views,

Unfortunately, we may be bypassing qualified or even brilliant individuals because they do not navigate the femininity/competence minefield – and who can? Perhaps Clinton was wrong to urge children to believe that they can be anything they want to be. Beautiful or not, our daughters will encounter the attractiveness and competence quotients– asked to be both while the catch-22 prevents it. And the minute their delicate juggling act topples, we will be quick to caricature them as a nutcracker doll or an Africa joke.

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To read some related Situationist posts, see “The Color of Sex Appeal,” The Situation of Body Image,” “The Situation of Hair Color,” “The Magnetism of Beautiful People,” Survival of the Cutest,” “Spas and Girls,” “Fitting in and Sizing Up,” and “Shades of Fairness and the Marketing of Prejudice.”


Posted in Life, Politics, Social Psychology | Tagged: , , , , | 2 Comments »

Political Psychology in 2008

Posted by The Situationist Staff on August 5, 2008

Sharon Begley has a very interesting article, “How Our Unconscious Votes,” in HealthNewsDigest.com. Here’s an excerpt.

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Give the democrats of West Virginia points for honesty. As Hillary Clinton romped to a landslide of 67 to 26 percent over Barack Obama in the primary, 20 percent of voters in exit polls said that race was an important factor in their choice—triple the percentage of earlier primaries. Of those, 80 percent voted for Clinton, making clear what they meant by “important.”

Obama’s “black supremacist” minister concerns her, one woman told my colleague Suzanne Smalley. Another found Obama’s “background, his heritage” suspicious. Both said they’d vote for John McCain over Obama.

The 2008 campaign has been subjected to more psychological analysis than Woody Allen. The top Democratic candidates asked psychology researchers for input, as did the national party, several state parties and the House and Senate Democratic caucuses. The 2007 book “The Political Brain,” by psychologist Drew Westen of Emory University, became a must-read for strategists, and so far it looks as though they got their money’s worth: key predictions of political psychology have held up pretty well on the campaign trail. Voters are driven more by emotions than by a cold-eyed, logical analysis of a candidate’s record and positions; witness the legions of anti-immigration Republicans who pulled the lever for McCain. Ten-point plans (Clinton) don’t move voters as powerfully as inspirational oratory (Obama). And unconscious motivations are stronger than conscious ones. This last finding might explain the growing role of racism in the campaign as well as the persistent “happiness gap” between liberals and conservatives—both of which will matter in November.

In March, when I wrote about research showing that people ignore race if another salient trait is emphasized, scientists agreed that Obama had to convey that “he is one of us.” That “us” could be Democrats, family men, opponents of the Iraq invasion, enemies of politics as usual. Instead, opponents (and the media) began playing up his “otherness”—not wearing a flag pin, belonging to a black church, having an exotic name. And Obama began slipping, losing support among blue-collar white voters in particular.

It may seem paradoxical, but to stop the bleeding Obama needs to talk about race more often and more explicitly. “Only 3 or 4 percent of people today consciously endorse racist sentiments,” says Westen. “But there are residues of prejudice at the unconscious level, and they aren’t difficult to activate if you know how to do it. Our better angels on race tend to be our conscious rather than our unconscious values and emotions.” It is those conscious brain circuits that Obama needs to keep activating, says Westen, “by talking about racism openly and attacking those who say white America will never vote for a black for president. Appeal to people’s conscious values.” That has a good chance of keeping unconscious racism at bay, brain studies show. Even more effective, combine direct talk about racism with an “I am like you” message, which leads the brain to focus on categories other than race. “Make it about ‘us’,” says Westen. “Talk about how we feel angry if a black fireman gets promoted ahead of us for no reason but affirmative action. Talk about how it’s natural to look at someone different from us and ask, does he share my values, can he understand me?”

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To read the entire article, including a discussion of Situationist contributor John Jost’s recent work, click here. For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “Do We Miss Racial Stereotypes Today that Will Be Evident Tomorrow?,” “Perceptions of Racial Divide,” “New Yorker Cover of the Obamas and Source Amnesia,” “Voting for a Face,” “The Situation of Swift-Boating,” On Being a Mindful Voter,” “Naïve Cynicism in Election 2008: Dispositionism v. Situationism?,” “Implicit Associations in the 2008 Presidential Election,” “The Situation of Political Animals,” and “Your Brain on Politics.” For other posts on the Situation of politics, click here.

Posted in Choice Myth, Emotions, Ideology, Implicit Associations, Politics | Tagged: , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

On Being a Mindful Voter

Posted by The Situationist Staff on June 3, 2008

Our intense scrutiny of the presidential candidates has produced a relentless stream of questions, some thoughtful and relevant, others spectacularly irrelevant and even embarrassing: Why are you not more likable, Hillary? How good a Christian can he be with the name Hussein?

With our focus solely on the candidates, however, we have neglected to examine the other powerful determinant of the election: the state of our own minds. And yet we know that the voter’s mind, the very thing doing the questioning, probing and judging, is itself prone to limitations no less profound than those of the candidates themselves.

Keeping one’s own mind “in mind” and being aware of its limitations is the first step toward making a conscious choice of who is best for us, the country and the world.

Human minds have a remarkable capability for self-reflection — the envy of every chimpanzee. This fanciest bell and whistle of the brain bestows on us the ability to consciously look into our own mind, recognize its contents, report on it and even change it.

As remarkable as this ability is, however, it tends to mask the fact that we are nonetheless unaware of the vast majority of our minds’ work.

It keeps us from knowing, and therefore from accepting, that the reasons we offer for our choices may not actually be driving those choices. This blindness should not be underestimated, because it is always accompanied by an insidious if honest denial of facts.

The mind sciences tell us much about the invisible mental gymnastics that end up dictating what we like and dislike, what we believe to be true and not, what drives us toward particular people and their ideologies.

My colleagues and I have posed two kinds of questions to understand these two sides of the mind, the conscious and the less conscious. Measuring the conscious side is familiar, tried and true. In the context of race, we ask, “Whom do you like? Whom will you vote for? Why?”

The other question is not only unfamiliar, it isn’t a question at all. To measure race preferences that may be less conscious, we measure the speed and accuracy of the mind at work. How quickly and how accurately do we — can we — perform the simple task of associating black and white with both good and bad? In the gender case, do we associate female or male more easily with “commander-in-chief”?

Such tests do not seek a reasoned answer but an automatic one, a response we form without “thinking.” From such responses we can derive an estimate of our less-conscious likes and dislikes, called automatic preferences. If the results of the two tests agree; that is, if you say you prefer black and you show the same level of preference for black on the automatic test, the two are boringly consistent.

But in ordinary people like me, we often don’t see consistency. Rather we see disparities between what we say and what we reveal. I, for example, report a seemingly genuine attitude of equal liking for black and white, but the automatic test reveals that I have a preference for white over black (as do the majority of whites and Asians in the United States and at least a third of African-Americans). Likewise, although I might express and even have an automatic preference for women, I struggle more than I’d like when I am asked to associate “female” with commander-in-chief.

Such disparity tells me that my spoken preference and beliefs, my intended egalitarian values are out of sync with my less explicit, less conscious preference for white (or for a male leader).

It tells me that I may not be fully aware of who I am or wish to be. What I take away from such a fracture in my own mind is a skepticism that I am color-blind or that I can look past gender to the truly competent candidate. Without awareness of the slippage in my own mind, I am likely to believe that all the relevant data are embedded in the candidates, not in me.

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In the Democratic primaries, we have been given two candidates who represent what was unthinkable in any previous election. Both represent what it means to be American in the broadest, most optimistic sense possible.

One represents the gender of half the people of this country and half the people of the world, but who after 232 years of independence is the first viable female candidate for president.

We also have a candidate who captures another aspect of a changing America: a person with parents from two continents, who is both black and white, from two cultures, rich and poor, with their own languages and religions.

But wait, we have a third candidate, whose demographics represent the familiar — a white, Southern male candidate — but whose actions reflect virtues so powerful that we might indeed set aside the strengths of the first two.

Everything that is tribal and ignorant about us should move us away from them. And that’s the mind’s natural, unexamined inclination. But I see millions taking these candidates seriously. The crossing over is thrilling to watch. Black, male and young, casting for Clinton. Women, white and elderly, voting for Obama. Northerners, the rich supporting Edwards.

These voters have overcome the easy inclination to go with the familiar past. They have broken a tribal cord that bound their predecessors. Their minds have seen through those candidates who create false fears of the enemy outside, who even now fail to recognize what is clearly a futile and unjust war, who lie about taxes, who hold religious beliefs contradictory to physical reality.

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The next election will again be determined not by Democrats or Republicans but by the sizable bloc of independents. Independents cannot be proud of the opportunities they missed four and eight years ago.

But now, there’s a new moment. From the research evidence, I know that to support any of the three Democratic candidates will not come easily. They demand that you give up a preference for the status quo, for what looks familiar, for what sounds superficially “presidential.”

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If that tribal preference is at all attractive, any of the throwbacks on the Republican slate will do.

But if Americans are ready to do what they have occasionally done before . . . the time to cast a similar vote is 2008.

Hillary, Barack and John, as much as we are testing them, are testing us.

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To read the entire editorial, click here. To visit the Project Implicit website and find out more about implicit associations, click here. 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 “Implicit Associations in the 2008 Presidential Election,” “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.”

Posted in Choice Myth, Implicit Associations, Politics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

 
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