In 1994, Congress passed legislation stating that Presidents elected to office after January 1, 1997, would no longer receive lifetime Secret Service protection. Such legislation was unremarkable until the first Black President – Barack Obama – was elected. From the outset of his campaign until today, and likely beyond, President Obama has received unprecedented death threats. These threats, we argue, are at least in part tied to critics and commentators’ use of symbols, pictures, and words to characterize the Obama as a primate, in various forms – including cartoonist Sean Delonas’ controversial New York Post cartoon. Against this backdrop and looking to history, cultural critique, federal case law, as well as cognitive and social psychology, we explore how the use of seemingly harmless imagery may still be racially-laden and evoke violence against its object.
In case you missed it, here is a worthwhile CNN International interview of Thierry Devos and Debbie Ma about their study, titled “Is Barack Obama American Enough to Be the Next President?: The Role of Ethnicity and National Identity in American Politics” (pdf here). The study’s introduction is as follows.
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Recent research has demonstrated a tenacious propensity to more readily ascribe the American identity to Whites than to ethnic minorities . . . . Interest in this American = White effect is timely given that a front runner in the 2008 presidential election is African American. The aim of the present research was to determine the role of ethnicity and national identity in the perception of political candidates, as well as identify correlates (behavioral, attitudinal, individual differences) of the American = White effect.
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Roughly, the study found, among other things, that a black candidate may be implicitly conceived of as less American than a white candidate and that the more American a candidate is construed as being the more support that candidate receives. Here’s the video.
Can Ted Kennedy’s death help shape future health care negotiations and pass a compromise bill? Yes – but not for the reasons you think.
On August 24, 2009, President Barack Obama’s ambitious health care agenda looked to be at serious risk. Numerous sources such as MSNBC, CBS News, and even the blogosphere were noting that Obama’s key initiative was losing traction among an American electorate that was alternately confused on the details of an amorphous plan, concerned about taking on additional costs during a nearly unprecedented recession, or ideologically opposed to a supposedly ‘inferior’ “Canadian-style health care” A Republican Party which had appeared confused and unfocused in response to Obama’s popularity suddenly had an issue around which could re-energize their base.
But on August 25, something seemingly important happened –Ted Kennedy passed away. Instantly, a Democratic Party which had been previously charitably described as ‘torn’ on the issue of a national health care plan sprung into action. Hours after Kennedy’s passing, Nancy Pelosi attempted to rally her party around an issue which Kennedy had described as his life’s unfinished work. ‘Win one for Teddy’ was the message and the rally around the flag effect came into play to varying degrees of receptivity. Kennedy supporters, such as his former press secretary Bob Shrum, were hopeful that his “long shadow” could spur renewed commitment for a deal. Those sceptical of the need to reform health care in the United States, such as John McCain, were quick to dispute the notion that Kennedy’s passing would help the pro-reform crowd due to the loss of the senior senator from Massachusetts’ strong bipartisan deal-making ability and passionate advocacy for his ‘pet project’.
Ultimately only time will tell what, if any, long-term effect Kennedy’s death will have among centrist Democrats and moderate Republicans (the key demographics necessary to pass health care reform). However, a week following the events of Kennedy’s death the centrist reconciliatory approach hoped for by Shrum already appears to have been a pipe dream as Kennedy’s passing seems to have a had a marginal impact on the terms of debate. On a recent head-to-head debate spot on CNN on September 7, 2009, Senators Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) repeated almost verbatim the general entrenched arguments of both sides. Hatch argued that adding a layer of complexity to the current U.S. health care system by putting it in the hands of the ‘bureaucrats’ (a favourite target of the Republicans since the Reagan days) while Sanders questioned how adding a public option and introducing competition to the private sector would negatively impact the business models of HMOs (overlooking the fact that a public option would have access to vast amounts of capital and visibility that some HMOs would be unable to compete with).
President Obama’s major address to Congress on health care on September 9th did little to heal these ingrained divisions. While the speech was well received by many centrist critics, the reaction among both the left and the right was largely humdrum. As noted by many observers from a wide spectrum of sources, Obama’s rhetoric and appeals to bipartisanship may have appealed to moderate Americans but did little to move legislators and, most likely, their core constituents.
The seeming inablity of both sides to parrot anything other than their entrenched arguments got me thinking about modern conceptions of the ‘art’ of negotiation and how it pertains to hot-button national political issues. Specifically, current political debates serve to underscore how undervalued situation has been as a consideration by scholars when studying political negotiations.
A favourite case study used by negotiation theorists to illustrate the power of political negotiators in bargaining situations is the Malta-U.K. negotiation for British leasing rights of a Maltese naval base in 1971. William Howard Wriggins advances the notion in his case study that Malta managed to maximize the value of their lease agreement with the U.K. by shopping their outdated and relatively unimportant military outpost to NATO enemies such as the Soviet Union, Libya and other Arab states. Malta’s leader leveraged the situation at the height of the Cold War to their advantage by making the alternatives to the U.K. and its NATO allies (that of having a rival’s outpost right in the middle of the Mediterranean) exceedingly unattractive. The contention of negotiation scholars is that Malta’s leadership managed to reframe the terms of the negotiation from a straight-up lease renewal of an unimportant outpost into a broader issue regarding NATO defence strategies.
While Wriggins’ example is an entertaining example of how political negotiators can use situation in order to reframe the terms of debate, state-to-state negotiations rarely share characteristics with intra-state political negotiations. To exemplify this point, take the Malta-U.K. example. What must be kept in mind in that case is the fact that the Maltese prime minister was wildly popular for taking on ‘outsiders’ (the U.K.). His aggressive and sometimes belligerent negotiation tactics helped foster an ‘us-against-them’ mentality among his constituents and consequently helped unite them in a (mostly) singular cause – making the British pay. Even though the costs to the Maltese would be great in financial terms were negotiations unsuccessful, their shared goal made the issue a collective struggle. However, in cases of internal political divisions such as the debate over health care, this ‘us-against-them’ phenomenon is more destructive. Because the foe in this case is not an ‘outsider’ and the issue an ideologically salient one regarding the future direction of the country, any attempts to incite such bravado inflame existing tensions making a peaceable resolution less likely. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your political viewpoint), the debate surrounding health care has already reached ‘us-against-them’ proportions as the debate between Senators Sanders and Hatch would attest.
The differences between the forums in which these negotiations take place are also exceedingly important. State-to-state negotiations usually take place at a high-level and behind closed doors where the public only knows the final outcome. Because the number of participants in these negotiations is so limited, it makes the tactics used by skilled negotiators more valuable. This is because the participants and negotiators in these sessions are freer to discuss options (framing various options in their favour being what skilled negotiators do best) without public scrutiny and gives ‘low-skill agents’ less opportunity to distort situations. Internal political negotiations, on the other hand, necessarily take place in the public sphere. Due to the fact that issues such as health care affect all Americans, possibly for generations, there is little tolerance for elite-driven closed-door bargaining – the public wishes to be engaged. Hence, even if closed-door negotiations did put an end to the health-care debate among legislators (which is unlikely), there would be little public acceptance of such a deal due to the fact that it would fail ‘second-table’ negotiation – that is negotiation with constituents.
But what about if you abandon strategic bargaining and try ‘principled negotiation in order to ‘expand the pie’? This ‘principled’ conception of negotiation was introduced by Roger Fisher and William Ury at the Harvard Project on Negotiation. Fisher and Ury’s assumption was that negotiators and stakeholders have the power and ability to reframe the terms of the negotiation and introduce new `win-win’ scenarios as possible outcomes. In essence, the theory posited by Fisher and Ury advances the notion how you negotiate (Fisher and Ury, Getting to Yes Second Edition, p. 177) makes an enormous difference because skilled negotiators can come up with creative options by which to ‘expand the pie’ and can overcome vast differences in power between the negotiation parties. While Fisher and Ury’s points are well made and are essential practical skills for negotiators, their points are less adept at explaining the dynamics driving intra-state political negotiations, such as that over health care.
As we have seen above, the ‘us-against-them’ mentality has already taken root which makes principled negotiation difficult. As I noted in a previous piece, UVA Social Psychology Professor Jonathan Haidt argues that when the public is faced with a difficult political question (of which health care would certainly qualify), most people “generally lean one way or the other right away, and then put a call in to reasoning to see whether support for that position is forthcoming.” Most tellingly, Haidt notes that “Most people gave no real evidence for their positions, and most made no effort to look for evidence opposing their initial positions.” Hence, while the negotiators behind the health care debate (in this case, legislators) may know the intricacies underpinning their respective arguments, convincing their constituents at second-table negotiations will be difficult. Indeed, even Senators with impeccable conservative credentials such as Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) are getting hammered by his core constituents who are concerned he may “bend too much on the way to compromise”.
In addition, while some legislators such as Max Baucus’ bipartisan “Gang of Six” have been working toward a health care compromise bill for months, most of the debate has been waged in full view of the American public. While this makes sense given the nature of the issue and the unlikelihood of success of second-table negotiations if negotiations were held behind closed doors (as noted above), this has also served to make fringe media characters on both sides more powerful. While these fringe agents aren’t ‘low-skill agents’ per say given that they aren’t actual negotiators or ‘agents’ they can be described as tools used by low-skill agents in gaining traction or core support for their more aggressive demands. Therefore, such talking heads as Keith Olbermann and Ann Coulter add a degree of obfuscation and surreality to the health care debate. Fringe media used by low-skills agents often impede the process of negotiations due to the fact that they are more interested in increasing their profile rather than wishing for any reasoned compromise. As noted by Michael Caine (Alfred) in the Dark Knight “Some men can’t be … reasoned with. Some men want to watch the world burn”.
Knowing all this, then, the question remains –Will Ted Kennedy’s passing influence the passage of ‘Obamacare’ and is there any hope for a compromise? The answer to both is yes though for reasons some may find counterintuitive.
Kennedy’s passing surely has an impact on the health care debate in America. While the central disagreements may have stayed the same, the loss of Kennedy is surely a blow to civilized discourse regarding health care reform. As noted by both Republicans and Democrats in the wake of Kennedy’s death, he was a respected legislator who was “willing to work with others to get things done, for the greater good.” His passing, then, means that there is one less communicator to sell health care and one less contemporary off of which Republicans can bounce their objections and ideas. Sadly, Shrum’s vision of a bipartisan Congress working toward a peaceable compromise on health care is growing more unlikely. As noted by Senator Arlen Specter (D-Pennsylvania), “We shall pause for our fallen comrade, but nothing seems to have any effect on the partisanship.” Instead, Kennedy’s legacy is more likely to be used to Democrats to rally their troops as Obama did September 9th. Kennedy’s legacy regarding the passage of reformed health care, then, may not be as a segueway to grand compromise but as a tool for greater Democratic engagement.
But is there still any hope for compromise bill? And can political negotiations regarding sensitive national issues still attain success? There is, and it can. However, building in order to reach this compromise we must build upon the lessons of Fisher and Ury. In negotiations such as this how you negotiate strikes me as less important than with whom you negotiate. In order to reach a negotiated settlement to the health care debate, politicians must turn the page and realize that their audience for negotiations rests ultimately not with their political peers but with their constituents. The negotiation is therefore not with each other but with voters.
With mid-term elections coming up, political leadership on both sides must realize that the fringes of their support have little place to go – those Republicans opposing all forms of government intervention aren’t going to vote Democrat or vice versa. Even those disaffected by any compromise aren’t likely to stay home given the pervasiveness of the issue and its potential effects. Therefore, the leaders on both sides must moderate their tone and aim for the squarely for the soft centre, where there is more leeway and additional votes to be had for or against health care reform. Only in this way will either side get (or, in the case of the Democrats, hang on to) the seats necessary to control the framework of negotiations for health care reform. President Obama has seemingly realized this appetite for compromise among the centre given his speech on health care. The question is, are legislators listening?
What does the 2008 election of Barack Obama to the United States presidency portend for race in America? This Essay uses the tremendous racial disparities in the American crime control system to assess race and racism as key features of contemporary society. The Essay begins by considering a compelling thesis that racialized mass incarceration stems from backlash to the civil rights movement. If true, this raises the possibility that Obama’s election, potentially marking the end of backlash politics, also represents a likely turning point in the war on crime. The Essay then reconsiders mass imprisonment from the perspective of “racial stratification,” a structural theory that emphasizes the simultaneous formation of racial categories and the misallocation of resources between races. A stratification approach leaves one less sanguine about rapid change in American race relations, though without disparaging either the historic nature of Obama’s inauguration or the possibility of incremental improvements in racial justice. Reflecting the continued need to push for positive racial change, the Essay concludes by arguing morally and politically for a renewed focus on racism, in particular on “post-racial racism.”
Sam has been an active racist his entire life. For decades, he has called blacks demeaning names; he has written about their inferiority; he has threatened them and beaten them; he has attended lynchings.
Under great pressure from various acquaintances and friends, in his seventieth year of life, he stops using the “n” word and ends the explicit prohibition on hiring blacks at his factory.
Ten years later, however, his business still has an almost all white workforce, despite getting lots of black applications, and no managers.
Should we trust Sam that racial bias has nothing to do with the disparity?
If you are like me, despite hoping that Sam has changed, you are deeply skeptical. A person carries his past with him, and it continues to shape his life—even when he genuinely believes he has left it far behind
The same is true of countries.
Our own dear old Uncle Sam has come a long way from the Montgomery bus boycott and the Greensboro sit-ins: today, fifty years later, there is broad agreement in society that bias and discrimination based on race are abhorrent.
But we must not forget that, in the history of our country, this consensus is a very recent development. For most of our past, bias and discrimination were the norm—permitted by statutory and constitutional law and supported by public opinion that openly held whites to be superior to blacks.
At a speech last week celebrating the 100th anniversary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, President Obama made exactly that point, even as he urged black America to do its part to help black children succeed: “Make no mistake, no mistake: the pain of discrimination is still felt in America.”
When asked several days later about the arrest of African-American Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. in his own home, Obama emphasized the “long history in this country of African-Americans being stopped disproportionately by the police” and suggested that the incident was “a sign of how race remains a factor in this society.”
There are many out there who strongly disagree with the president, who believe that we have reached the end of our long journey out of night—that we stand at the dawning of post-racial America. As former Bush administration official John Yoo argued in the Philadelphia Inquirer, protections for minorities written into employment law, election law, and college admissions “might have been justified in the 1960s . . . [but] they are necessary no longer.” Our nation has fulfilled its promise of creating a nation that ensures “the proposition that all men are created equal.”
While I share Yoo’s desire to embrace progress and to step into the light, I cannot ignore the evidence that suggests that his assessment is wrong.
First, blacks do not enjoy equal outcomes to whites with respect to income, education, health care, and numerous other areas.
Consider just the statistics on criminal law: Forty percent of felony defendants are black and a black male is five times more likely to serve time in prison over his lifetime than a white male. Blacks also receive significantly higher bail amounts, are given longer sentences, and are more likely to be sentenced to death than their white counterparts. In fact, the more stereotypically black your features are, the more likely you are to receive the death penalty.
Second, this disparate impact appears to have its roots in implicit biases held by many Americans beyond their conscious awareness or control.
Over the last 10 years, hundreds of thousands of individuals have participated in research studies measuring their racial stereotypical associations using the Implicit Association Test, developed by psychology professors from Harvard, the University of Washington, and the University of Virginia.
Approximately 70 percent of those who have taken the test have demonstrated a preference for whites to blacks.
Just as critically, the test has significant value at predicting social judgment and behavior, as an overview analysis of 122 research reports published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology last month documented. Physicians with a white preference on the Implicit Association Test, for example, provided less effective treatments to hypothetical black coronary artery disease patients than to white patients. Likewise, individuals with a white preference on the test were more likely to shoot a black target in a simulation than a white target engaging in identical behavior.
This evidence does not mean that, today, Americans are all hate-filled bigots. One of the major findings is that many egalitarians—those genuinely committed to racial equality, including the test designers themselves—show automatic race preference.
What it means is that the hundreds of years of explicit racism in our country have left a mark within us. We may be completely unaware of its existence, but it is influencing our actions.
Uncle Sam is on the right path. The election of our first minority president and the likely confirmation of Judge Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court are testaments to how far we have come, but they are welcome signs of progress not an indication that we have reached our destination.
Pew Research has put together a neat interactive chart featuring the top 20 used to describe President Barack Obama in April compared with the frequency of respondents using those words last September.
Some big changes:
* On the plus side for the President, people are now more likely to describe him as “intelligent” and “good”, and far less likely to describe him as “inexperienced.”
* On the down side (in the eyes of most), the President is far less likely to have the word “change” associated with him, while “socialist” has become a much more popular description of him.
Whatever words are used to describe President Obama, his 67% approval rating suggests people are generally supportive of him. It will be interesting to see Pew’s findings later this year and into the 2010 midterm elections.
The image to the left is a portion of a controversial cartoon that ran in yesterday’s New York Post. The cartoon (the entirety of which is here) includes this punchline: “Now they will have to find someone else to write the stimulus bill.”
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A common assumption among most Americans is that race is not an issue these days; after all, most of us rarely if ever feel ourselves being “racist.” If we are not thinking about race when we go about our daily lives and if we are not harboring any racial animus when we interact or socialize inter-racially, then, we assume, race is not influencing us. We may not be blind to color, but we might as well be. Most Americans, I’m guessing, would therefore not have a problem with this cartoon.
Rev. Al Sharpton, on the other hand, does:
“The cartoon is troubling at best given the historic racist attacks of African-Americans as being synonymous with monkeys. One has to question whether the cartoonist is making a less than casual reference to this when in the cartoon they have police saying after shooting a chimpanzee that ‘Now they will have to find someone else to write the stimulus bill.’
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“Being that the stimulus bill has been the first legislative victory of President Barack Obama (the first African American president) and has become synonymous with him it is not a reach to wonder are they inferring that a monkey wrote the last bill?”
The New York Post’s editor-in-chief, Col Allan, dismissed Sharpton’s remarks with this retort: “The cartoon is a clear parody of a current news event, to wit the shooting of a violent chimpanzee in Connecticut. It broadly mocks Washington’s efforts to revive the economy. . . .”
But why couldn’t Mr. Allan and Rev. Sharpton both be right? Why, in other words, would Mr. Allan conclude that a parody of a violent chimpanzee cannot also reflect and encourage troubling racial associations?
Perhaps it is because neither he nor his cartoonist were consciously thinking about race when creating or publishing the cartoon. If they did not think about race, then they know race didn’t influence them. From that perspective, Sharpton’s suggestion that race may have played some role seems preposterous.
But that sort of reasoning is itself preposterous when one takes seriously what social psychology and related mind sciences have discovered about the role of unconscious or implicit associations. Our brains, it seems, have a mind of their own, and that mind is often operating automatically and powerfully in ways that reflect common cultural stereotypes — including those that we might consciously reject. What we think we know about what is moving us is only a tiny, and often a misleading, part of what is actually going on in those parts of our brains that elude introspection but that can nonetheless manifest in our perceptions, emotions, and actions.
If one examines the cartoon mindful of racial stereotypes, the image scores a hat-trick and then some. The association of blacks to guns, to crime, violence, and to hostile interactions with law enforcement officers is so strong and should be so well understood that I won’t take time to review the evidence.
What some people may not be aware of is the disturbingly robust implicit associations of African Americans to monkeys, chimps, and apes.
As social psychologist Jennifer Eberhardt recently observed, “one of the oldest race battles that blacks have fought in this country has been the battle to be recognized as fully human. To be regarded not in the in-between status somewhere between ape and human but to be fully human.” And with a black American now the President of the United States, the tendency to link black Americans to apes might be dismissed as an irrelevant relic of the past.
But is it? In the video excerpts below (from the Project on Law and Mind Sciences 2007 Conference), Jennifer Eberhardt’s describes some of her research examining whether such a de-humanizing association continues to operate beneath the radar of our consciousness (10 minutes total).
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While it is no doubt affirming to believe that we live in a post-racial society as revealed by Barack Obama’s election, it is probably more accurate to say that race is alive and well in the recesses of our brains and that the election of Barack Obama is — particularly when he is connected to policies we disfavor — likely to activate some of those unseen associations.
If one didn’t think about race while imagining and sketching a cartoon, that doesn’t imply that race didn’t play a role in shaping those processes. Nor does it justify indifference, much less indignance, toward those who urge us to consider whether race did somehow play a role.
Quite the contrary, given our history and the hierarchies and inequalities that continue to define our country, all of us should be especially attentive and sensitive to the possibilities that what we “know” to be true about what is moving us is often mistaken and that those mistakes have consequences.
. . . [R]esearchers have documented what they call an Obama effect, showing that a performance gap between African-Americans and whites on a 20-question test administered before Mr. Obama’s nomination all but disappeared when the exam was administered after his acceptance speech and again after the presidential election.
The inspiring role model that Mr. Obama projected helped blacks overcome anxieties about racial stereotypes that had been shown, in earlier research, to lower the test-taking proficiency of African-Americans, the researchers conclude in a report summarizing their results.
“Obama is obviously inspirational, but we wondered whether he would contribute to an improvement in something as important as black test-taking,” said Ray Friedman, a management professor at Vanderbilt University, one of the study’s three authors. “We were skeptical that we would find any effect, but our results surprised us.”
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Dr. Friedman and his fellow researchers, David M. Marx, a professor of social psychology at San Diego State University, and Sei Jin Ko, a visiting professor in management and organizations at Northwestern, have submitted their study for review to The Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, Dr. Friedman said.
“It’s a very small sample, but certainly a provocative study,” said Ronald F. Ferguson, a Harvard professor who studies the factors that have affected the achievement gap between white and nonwhite students, which shows up on nearly every standardized test. “There is a certainly a theoretical foundation and some empirical support for the proposition that Obama’s election could increase the sense of competence among African-Americans, and it could reduce the anxiety associated with taking difficult test questions.”
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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.
After eight years under the same president, our country is on the verge of some major changes. This is an exciting time. The election of a new president encourages us to take a collective look in the mirror and it throws the spotlight on the distinctive characteristics of the person we’ve elected. Whom we choose as president says a great deal about us – who we are, what we want, and how we have changed in the past eight years.
It is beyond doubt that Barack Obama’s intelligence, his policy positions, and his remarkable temperament will play a crucial role in the next chapter of world history. At the same time, both the full meaning of this election and its likely impact on the next four years are more difficult to ascertain than we might like to admit.
The idea of the election as a direct choice between the policies of Obama and McCain would also fit into a clean, dispositionist narrative of American politics. But what if voters ultimately made their decisions based on other factors? For example, Douglas Schoen of the Wall Street Journal argues that the results of this election are “not a mandate for Democratic policies” because voters acted primarily out of a desire to reject Bush and the Republicans. What about other factors such as the economy or the personal attributes of the candidates?
Though the economy was hardly a centerpiece of Obama’s campaign, his first concrete lead appeared shortly after the advent of the current financial crisis. How do we read the tea leaves? Does the important role of the economy in Obama’s victory hint that his policies couldn’t gain acceptance under normal circumstances, or did the crisis simply prove that that the American people trust Obama’s judgment? What about age, race, or any of the other factors that might have influenced the election? Does Obama’s charisma strengthen or weaken the rationale for electing him? What are the implications for an Obama presidency if the election represented something other than a direct up or down referendum on the president-elect’s policies?
In the context of dispositionist Enlightenment values, elections present the highest, purest forum for individuals to exercise rational choice. By choosing between various candidates and platforms, we communicate our preferences to the government, in turn providing our rulers with a mandate for the choices they make. It’s clear that voting is important and that our choice of a given candidate expresses a preference, but it’s not clear how much of that preference derives from stable views or strictly rational evaluation of qualifications and policy positions. Voters’ perceptions of issues are susceptible to the influence of emotion and identity appeals. Changes in situational factors such as political climate, economic stability, and “October surprises” affect support for candidates without necessarily altering their positions or qualifications. And it’s widely understood that politicians don’t reliably follow through on their campaign promises (for example, even before this election, the bailout made both candidates’ existing proposals unfeasible). What, then, is the nature of the connection between a vote based on proposals from the campaign season and the mandate for the action a new president actually takes?
Even to the extent that we vote based on conscious policy decisions, it is easy to overestimate the degree to which a president’s innate qualities and preferences determine how events unfold during his or her time in office. Our dispositionist assumptions emphasize a view of the chief executive primarily as an independent decision-making actor – the president as “the decider.”
But even the deepest convictions and policy positions of a president-elect are not determinative of what the country experiences in the following four years. No initial mandate can render a president immune to political forces. Preexisting conditions (such as our current economic and military challenges) can complicate or preclude efforts to enact new policy. And every president faces historic changes in global and domestic circumstances that come to define his or her term in office. Good judgment is crucial when meeting such challenges, but ultimately the president’s choices represent only one of many factors shaping the course of events.
Barack Obama’s election has inspired millions and ignited hope around the globe. Given the historic shift in power we’re experiencing, it’s tempting to jump to conclusions about what we’ve proven by electing Obama and what the world will look like with him as president of the United States. But in the end, we support candidates for many different reasons and the results of this presidential election don’t unambiguously define the country. Likewise, President Obama may go on to accomplish many things, but it’s unwise to assume – for better or for worse – that the fate of our country lies in his hands. The full meaning of Obama’s presidential victory will take time to emerge. For now, the best first step we can take into the Yes We Can era would be to remember the limitations we all have as individuals and not rely on President Obama to single-handedly change the world.
In just over a week, we will see a referendum on “Joe Six-Pack” politics. Over the past decade or two, the Republican Party has promoted a political fiction that conflates wholesomeness, independence, tradition, and common sense with anti-intellectualism and suspicion of outsiders. More recently, Sarah Palin has championed the effort to highlight the supposed division between secular liberal coastal elites and “normal” Americans. By her own words, Palin believes that small towns are “the real America” and she has warned that Barack Obama “is not a man who sees America as you see it and how I see America.” While it might be comforting to dismiss these efforts as a desperate appeal to emotional voters who don’t know or don’t care about the substantive issues in this election, the persistence of these “us vs. them” arguments in our current political paradigm hints at deeper reasons for concern.
Regardless of policy expertise, is there reason to think that makes a difference whether Sarah Palin is a moose-hunting, “Joe Six-Pack”conservative Christian? Yes. Humans are fundamentally social and those distinctions matter – no matter which side of them you may be on. In fact, our affinity for those with similar backgrounds provides an important means of making sense of the world and strengthening ties with others. We have such a natural predisposition for “birds of a feather” to “flock together” that even groups formed with no prior connection among the members (or no meaningful connection at all) can demonstrate a preference for their comrades over those outside the group. Social psychologists call this the “minimal group” paradigm: Individuals randomly assigned to one group over another, absent any rational justification, engage in self-evaluation that favors their new group and strengthens their affiliation with its members. In cultural, family, or political groups, our affiliation with others can provide a comforting means of evaluating the immense, complex web of incomplete information with which we are presented in everyday life. Psychologists have even found that identification of a policy proposal as being from one’s own party can be more determinative of an individual’s approval than the actual content of the proposed policy.
Because our evaluation of policies and political candidates is not purely rational, candidates like Sarah Palin can invoke existing or imagined group affiliations to reframe the political landscape and override other, more rational considerations.
All of this matters because, regardless of who draws the lines in the sand, these tactics do not uniquely manipulate one segment of the country or one end of the political spectrum. Rather they impact all of us by contributing to a situation that alters our perceptions, incites prejudice, and affects behavior across the board. When political tacticians push small town Americans to claim moral superiority over the rest of the country, the resulting climate encourages liberal, college-educated Americans to ignore the complexity in regional and local politics in favor of their own self-serving views. In short, the idea that liberals are more rational or intellectual than conservatives perpetuates a simplistic, partisan view that precludes empathy and interferes with positive change.
It is neither novel nor surprising that this presidential campaign has seen attempts to mobilize support based on identity appeals and false dichotomies. But as we decide which candidate will best face the domestic and international challenges of the next four years, it is worth remembering that our perceptions of those issues and ideas are inherently shaped by how we view ourselves in relation to those with different backgrounds and opposing perspectives. Unless we account for how “Joe Six-Pack” politics manipulate and polarize our political views, Conservatives will never be independent and Liberals will never truly be rational.
Nicholas Kristoff in Sunday’s New York Times has an interesting op-ed on the possible role of unconscious racism in Senator Barack Obama’s pursuit of the Presidency. We excerpt the op-ed below.
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[T]he evidence is that Senator Obama is facing what scholars have dubbed “racism without racists.”
The racism is difficult to measure, but a careful survey completed last month by Stanford University, with The Associated Press and Yahoo, suggested that Mr. Obama’s support would be about six percentage points higher if he were white. That’s significant but surmountable.
Most of the lost votes aren’t those of dyed-in-the-wool racists. Such racists account for perhaps 10 percent of the electorate and, polling suggests, are mostly conservatives who would not vote for any Democratic presidential candidate.
Rather, most of the votes that Mr. Obama actually loses belong to well-meaning whites who believe in racial equality and have no objection to electing a black person as president — yet who discriminate unconsciously.
“When we fixate on the racist individual, we’re focused on the least interesting way that race works,” said Phillip Goff, a social psychologist at U.C.L.A. who focuses his research on “racism without racists.” “Most of the way race functions is without the need for racial animus.”
For decades, experiments have shown that even many whites who earnestly believe in equal rights will recommend hiring a white job candidate more often than a person with identical credentials who is black. In the experiments, the applicant’s folder sometimes presents the person as white, sometimes as black, but everything else is the same. The white person thinks that he or she is selecting on the basis of nonracial factors like experience.
Research suggests that whites are particularly likely to discriminate against blacks when choices are not clear-cut and competing arguments are flying about — in other words, in ambiguous circumstances rather like an electoral campaign.
For example, when the black job candidate is highly qualified, there is no discrimination. Yet in a more muddled gray area where reasonable people could disagree, unconscious discrimination plays a major role.
White participants recommend hiring a white applicant with borderline qualifications 76 percent of the time, while recommending an identically qualified black applicant only 45 percent of the time.
John Dovidio, a psychologist at Yale University who has conducted this study over many years, noted that conscious prejudice as measured in surveys has declined over time. But unconscious discrimination — what psychologists call aversive racism — has stayed fairly constant.
“In the U.S., there’s a small percentage of people who in nationwide surveys say they won’t vote for a qualified black presidential candidate,” Professor Dovidio said. “But a bigger factor is the aversive racists, those who don’t think that they’re racist.”
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For the rest of the op-ed, click here. For other Situationist posts on the 2008 Presidential Election, click here.
Most of the initial reaction to Sarah Palin’s selection . . . threatens to obscure a seductive and misleading subtext in Palin’s biography that may play a key role in the election: the way she embodies the hope of a blue-collar life without economic insecurity.
Palin’s background reminded us of an Alaskan we met several years ago. We had just moved to Anchorage for a temporary job in the state court system and struck up an illuminating conversation with a bricklayer while on a hike outside town. He made a surprising amount of money—he had moved to Alaska because its wages were so high. He also had enviable stretches of leisure . . . . He exuded optimism; his life was good and he knew it, and there was no resentment of yuppies like us.
Palin’s family, warts and all, has some of the same features. Husband Todd’s two jobs—commercial fisherman and oil production manager on the North Slope—required little formal education and provide ample time off. Yet they pay extremely well. . . .
Mr. Palin’s income alone would put the Palins at about the same level as many well-educated, white-collar workers we knew in Anchorage. It is also enough money to enjoy a quality of life that is, at least to a certain taste, superior to what is enjoyed almost anywhere else, either in cities or in the countryside. Like the bricklayer, the Palins can hunt and fish in a place of legendary abundance. Their hometown may be a dingy Anchorage exurb, but it has cheap, plentiful land bordering a vast and beautiful wilderness, which is crisscrossed by Todd (the “Iron Dog” champion) and the Palin children all winter. . . .
This free and easy life is radically different from the desperate existences depicted in Barack Obama’s speeches. . . .
This disjunction between the good life for many Alaskans and the not-so-good life for working-class families elsewhere suggests several strategies for the McCain campaign. . . .
While Democratic policy tries to help blue-collar workers by making it easier for them to attend college and get office jobs—that is, by encouraging them to cease to be blue-collar—Palin’s Alaskan story offers hope from within the blue-collar culture. She validates the goodness of life in rural America because she has embraced a particularly exotic, turbocharged version of this life. Her biography, bound to be emphasized by Republicans, thus makes a powerful appeal to one of the country’s most decisive constituencies.
The rub, of course, is that however genuine it may be, Palin’s family life may not be possible outside Alaska. . . .
Nicole Fritz has a nice article summarizing research of Patricia Devine, a University of Wisconsin-Madison psychology professor. Here’s a sample.
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It is a question on many Americans’ minds: Is the United States ready for a black president, or will deep-rooted and even unconscious prejudices show at the polls?
For Patricia Devine, . . . who researches prejudice, the answer isn’t black and white.
“Your conscious mind might tell you to vote for [Obama], but in the privacy of the election booth your unconscious biases may vote differently,” Devine says.
However, Devine holds out when she reflects on the outcome of the election. “It remains to be seen but, cautiously, I think America is ready.”
It is Devine’s rare and constant optimism in people that during the past two decades has changed the field of prejudice psychology.
“Extensive amounts of research have demonstrated the prevalence of stereotyping, prejudice and discrimination, but where others saw mere statistics, Trish saw an opportunity. The premise upon which much of her research is based is that people desire to be good,” says Laura Sheets, one of Devine’s students and lab assistants. “In her personality, lectures and research, Trish consistently conveys this message of optimism.”
In the 1980s, when equal rights were beginning to become a cultural norm, many pessimistic researchers thought people who responded that they were non-prejudiced but then acted with bias were simply liars. Devine trusted the people’s responses and embarked on journey to find out why people want to free themselves of prejudice but unconsciously act with bias.
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Devine started her research as a graduate student at Ohio State University, moving to UW-Madison in 1985 to become an associate professor. She has spent almost 25 years working to put together what she calls her “prejudice puzzle.”
The first puzzle piece was the difference between controlled or conscious and automatic or unconscious responses. In the ’80s, when prejudice was the domain of social psychology, Devine used cognitive psychology research on intentional versus unintentional responses to explain why people will respond with controlled non-prejudiced answers when they have time to process questions, but will have automatic biased actions without processing time.
First, individuals took surveys to show their conscious level of prejudice. Then they took an Implicit Association Test (IAT), a picture/word association test that asks participants to respond as quickly as possible to whether a face or image or phrase is good or bad.
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Devine explains that these biased automatic responses in IATs come from a socialization process that encourages prejudice.
“[Prejudice] is the legacy of our socialization experiences. We all learn these stereotypes and have these biases at the ready whether we condone them or not, whether we think they are good or not, and as a result the immediate reaction is a biased one,” Devine explains. “If you are going to respond in nonbiased ways, you have to gain control or override the automatically activated stereotypic response and instead respond in these thoughtful deliberate ways that might represent your personal values.
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Devine explains that eliminating prejudice is like breaking a habit — in the same way that she had to consciously stop biting her nails as a child, people who want to break the prejudice habit every day have to be aware of their own internal prejudice.
“[Eliminating prejudice] is a process. Making that decision is the first step, but then what you have to do is put some effort into it,” Devine says. “Just making the decision doesn’t mean you wake up one day, stretch and say ‘I’m not prejudiced,’ because you have got this whole socialization experience that you grew up with.”
To support her view that people with conflicting responses are not liars, Devine broke up participants into two groups: high prejudice and low prejudice. The key difference between the two groups is that high-prejudice people will respond with prejudice and not have internal conflict, but low-prejudice people who respond with prejudice feel guilty afterward.
This guilt, what Devine calls prejudice with compunction, is the key to eliminating prejudice.
“When people’s values conflicted, what I predicted is that if they were sincere in their non-prejudicial beliefs, they would feel guilty and self-critical and they would hold themselves accountable,” Devine says. “When given a chance, [low-prejudice] people tried to learn from mistakes, tried to absorb material and at the next opportunity when prejudice was possible, they responded in a fair and unbiased way.”
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Devine . . . began to research student motivation for non-prejudiced behavior and how students could be better reached. [For more, click here.]
In addition to IAT, Devine used startle-eye blink tests, which places sensors on participants’ eyes and then measures their automatic startled-blink response to different faces. Once again the tests proved discrepancies between the reported and automatic response. But what Devine was interested in was the motivations behind the controlled responses.
Devine found that people have both internal motivations (personal values and standards) and external motivations (pressure from society) to act without bias. Through her research, Devine has learned people can be internally motivated, externally motivated or both internally and externally motivated with no correlation between the motivations.
Her research has also shown that it is only the internal motivations that allow people to act without bias in both controlled and automatic responses. People who are externally motivated or internally and externally motivated respond without prejudice on explicit self-report measures but respond in biased ways on implicit measures that do not allow for control over responses.
By knowing the different motivations of individuals, professionals can try to eliminate prejudice via different methods.
“High internal/high external individuals are not good at responding without bias so what they need is help learning to respond without bias. They already have the motivation; we need to give them the skills,” Devine says. “For the high external individuals, we need to create internal motivation. That is what will rid them of prejudice over time.”
Devine’s latest research shows external motivation pushes can cause negative backlash in society, especially on college campuses.
“The low internal/high external individuals, on a campus like this, receive a lot of pressure, and not in a gentle way. People say ‘The way you think is wrong and people who like you are stupid.’ You start to get irritated and you push the message away,” Devine says. “That is one of the things I worry about: backlash. The harder non-prejudiced norms are pushed on them, the more they cement their walls of resistance. For such individuals, reducing prejudice requires finding ways to crack those walls of resistance.”
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As for Devine, although the possibility of a black president shows a growth in prejudice reduction, she sees 25 more years of puzzle-fitting in her future.
We recently highlighted the possible role of implicit associations in the John McCain ad connecting Barack Obama to Britany Spears and Paris Hilton. To continue the discussion of possible subconscious manipulations in political ads, we bring you an interesting new article on McCain’s “The One” ad by Amy Sullivan of Time Magazine. Sullivan examines whether The One (available above) implicitly suggests that Obama is the Antichrist. We excerpt her article below.
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The Republican nominee’s advisers brush off the charges, arguing that the spot was meant to be a “creative” and “humorous” way of poking fun at Obama’s popularity by painting him as a self-appointed messiah. But even this innocuous interpretation of the ad — which includes images of Charlton Heston as Moses and culled clips that make Obama sound truly egomaniacal — taps into a conversation that has been gaining urgency on Christian radio and political blogs and in widely circulated e-mail messages that accuse Obama of being the Antichrist.
The ad was the creation of Fred Davis, one of McCain’s top media gurus as well as a close friend of former Christian Coalition head Ralph Reed and the nephew of conservative Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe. It first caught the attention of Democrats familiar with the Left Behind series, a fictionalized account of the end-time that debuted in the 1990s and has sold nearly 70 million books worldwide. “The language in there is so similar to the language in the Left Behind books,” says Tony Campolo, a leading progressive Evangelical speaker and author.
As the ad begins, the words “It should be known that in 2008 the world shall be blessed. They will call him The One” flash across the screen. The Antichrist of the Left Behind books is a charismatic young political leader named Nicolae Carpathia who founds the One World religion (slogan: “We Are God”) and promises to heal the world after a time of deep division. One of several Obama clips in the ad features the Senator saying, “A nation healed, a world repaired. We are the ones that we’ve been waiting for.”
Image from Left Behind Series
The visual images in the ad, which Davis says has been viewed even more than McCain’s “Celeb” ad linking Obama to the likes of Paris Hilton and Britney Spears, also seem to evoke the cover art of several Left Behind books. But they’re not the cartoonish images of clouds parting and shining light upon Obama that might be expected in an ad spoofing him as a messiah. Instead, the screen displays a sinister orange light surrounded by darkness and later the faint image of a staircase leading up to heaven.
Perhaps the most puzzling scene in the ad is an altered segment from The 10 Commandments that appears near the end. A Moses-playing Charlton Heston parts the animated waters of the Red Sea, out of which rises the quasi-presidential seal the Obama campaign used for a brief time earlier this summer before being mocked into retiring it. The seal, which features an eagle with wings spread, is not recognizable like the campaign’s red-white-and-blue “O” logo. That confused Democratic consultant Eric Sapp until he went to his Bible and remembered that in the apocalyptic Book of Daniel, the Antichrist is described as rising from the sea as a creature with wings like an eagle.
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Mara Vanderslice, another Democratic consultant, who handled religious outreach for the 2004 Kerry campaign, agrees. “If they wanted to be funny, if they really wanted to play up the idea that Obama thinks he’s the Second Coming, there were better ways to do it,” she says. “Why use these awkward lines like, ‘And the world will receive his blessings’?”
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It’s not hard to see how some Obama haters might be tempted to make the comparison. In the Left Behind books, Carpathia is a junior Senator who speaks several languages, is beloved by people around the world and fawned over by a press corps that cannot see his evil nature, and rises to absurd prominence after delivering just one major speech. Hmmh. But serious Antichrist theorists don’t stop there. Everything from Obama’s left-handedness to his positive rhetoric to his appearance on the cover of this magazine has been cited as evidence of his true identity. One chain e-mail claims that the Antichrist was prophesied to be “A man in his 40s of MUSLIM descent,” which would indeed sound ominous if not for the fact that the Book of Revelation was written at least 400 years before the birth of Islam.
The speculation reached a fever pitch after Obama’s European trip and the Berlin speech in which he called for global unity. Conservative Christian author Hal Lindsey declared in an essay on WorldNetDaily, “Obama is correct in saying that the world is ready for someone like him — a messiah-like figure, charismatic and glib … The Bible calls that leader the Antichrist. And it seems apparent that the world is now ready to make his acquaintance.” The conservative website RedState.com now sells mugs and T shirts that sport a large “O” with horns and the words “The Anti-Christ” underneath.
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A new TIME poll finds that the most conservative Evangelicals are the least enthusiastic about McCain’s candidacy. Convincing them that Obama does have two horns and a tail might be the best way of getting them to vote. That’s what worries Campolo, who also sits on the Democratic Party’s platform committee. “Those books have created a subliminal language, and I think judgments will be made unconsciously about Barack Obama,” he says. “It scares the daylights out of me.”
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To read the rest of the article, which is well worth the read, click here. To read a blog devoted to the belief that Obama is the Antichrist, click here. As a point of comparison to McCain’s “The One” ad, check out the Swift Boat ad that was waged against John Kerry in the 2004 Presidential election.
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?”
Sam Sommers has another terrific post (this one titled “Obama and the Racial Divide”) on the Psychology Today blog. Here are some excerpts.
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[T]he Times poll indicates that a majority of White and Black Americans think progress towards racial equality is being made, but only Whites seem to be getting more optimistic over time regarding the general state of race relations. Why is this? Well, in large part it seems to be the case that Whites and Blacks use different reference points in answering these questions.
In other words, when you ask White Americans about race relations in this country, on average they tend to respond by thinking, well, things are certainly better now than they used to be, so I’ll say we’re doing OK. Blacks, on the other hand, are more likely to think about their personal experiences with prejudice or current racial disparities in important outcomes like health, income, or employment. Accordingly, Blacks more typically think, things still aren’t as good as they could or should be, so we’re not doing so great.
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So some of this racial disparity reflects different reference points used by Whites and Blacks in answering these questions. Anytime you ask someone for a global assessment of anything—whether marital happiness, job satisfaction, or the state of the economy—the reference point they choose to use is hugely important in determining the answer they give. . . .
But there also remains a more pessimistic interpretation of this racial divergence in opinions. Some of it clearly has to do with self-interest. In another set of studies, Eibach concludes that many White Americans view gains in racial equality as personal losses, whereas Black Americans see them as personal gains. Of course, it’s hard to get people to support movements that they see as working against their self-interests, suggesting that this gulf between Whites and Blacks can’t be bridged completely by getting everyone to focus on the same point of reference.
Ann Ryman for the Arizona Republic has an interesting piece summarizing the research examining how looks influence votes. Here are a few excerpts.
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A growing body of research supports the notion that a candidate’s attempts to establish himself as a powerful leader can be helped or hurt by his facial features. Appearance is not, of course, the sole factor that sways voters, but experts who have studied the link between faces and people’s perceptions say we place more emphasis on looks than we think.
Facial structure can play a role in how trustworthy, strong and charismatic we perceive someone to be, said Caroline Keating, a psychology professor at Colgate University who studies facial structure and perceptions of power.
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“One reason why it’s so important for us to perceive our leaders as competent, credible and sincere is because that makes us feel secure,” Keating said. “We identify with leaders. If leaders look confident, brave, bold and true, then we feel we can take on the world.”
Keating has conducted research on people’s reactions to former Presidents Reagan and Kennedy. Using digital images, she made subtle, almost undetectable changes designed to enhance or diminish their facial features and tested reactions. . . .
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There is evidence that people can often predict the election winners just by looking at faces.
Alexander Todorov, an assistant professor of psychology at Princeton University, gave people photos of unfamiliar political candidates who won and were runners-up in state governor races. He asked people to pick the most competent candidates, and they chose the winners 68 percent of the time.
Whether this reliance on snap judgments is good or bad is hard to tell, Keating said.
“What’s the job of a leader? It’s to move us,” she said. “If you don’t look sincere, then you’re never going to move anybody. You’re not going to instill in them the confidence and the emotional tenor you need to get them to sign onto the programs you think are important. So, when it comes to motivating people, it’s all about the non-verbal.”
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To read the entire article (which includes a analysis of McCain and Obama’s facial features, click here. For other posts on the Situation of politics, click here.