The Situationist

Stereotype Lift – The Obama Effect

Posted by The Situationist Staff on January 24, 2009

From Sam Dillon’s article, titled “Study Sees an Obama Effect as Lifting Black Test-Takers,” in yesterday’s New York Times.
* * *

. . . [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.”

* * *

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.”

* * *

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.

* * *

To read the entire article, click here.  For a sample of related Situationist posts discussing stereotype threat, see “Stereotype Threat and Performance,” The Gendered Situation of Science and Math,” “Gender-Imbalanced Situation of Math, Science, and Engineering,” “Sex Differences in Math and Science,” “You Shouldn’t Stereotype Stereotypes,” “Women’s Situation in Economics,” and “Your Group is Bad at Math.”

6 Responses to “Stereotype Lift – The Obama Effect”

  1. […] The Situationist reports on a provokative study that found listening to President Obama’s inauguration speech substantially improved the test scores of black students, showing the power of self image, expectations, and internalized […]

  2. Ben said

    Failure to reject the null hypothesis doesn’t prove it, especially in a study with a small sample size. Also, it’s my understanding that releasing the results of a study prior to peer review is generally regarded as a red flag. The real test is whether the CHANGE in the gap is statistically significant. They could have reported the same results if they only tested one black guy and he happened to score above average.

    Notice that this study (or even an abstract) doesn’t seem to be web accessible.


    1. Note that they give the scores pre-Obama, but not post-Obama. So there was still a gap, but perhaps only at a 90% significance level rather than a 95% level.
    2. Sample size of students is tiny, as you noted.
    3. The number of questions is very small.
    4. Self-selection effects (it’s an internet study, not a representative sample).
    5. Different times of year may catch students in or out of school, different people who may have heard about the study (including from the experimenters, who may have sent flyers or emails to different places), etc.

  3. CJ said

    Since race is a social construct not based in biology a study like this is a moot point flawed from the start. How are these researchers able to define something which has no biological borders and based on a flawed social categorization? Since there is no race, how can you test it? And why should anyone care about the test taking ability of individuals belonging to a categorization that doesn’t exist? The researchers are just creating more divisiveness.

  4. […] the stereotype threat, in comes research on a phenomena called the Obama Effect, described here by the Situationist, reported first via the NY Times: [R]esearchers have documented what they call an Obama effect, […]

  5. Mya said

    Although you are correct in your statement that race is a social construct, it doesn’t mean that the test taking abilities of individuals belonging to a constructed category are something to not care about. Race is a social construct that was created many years ago and because of this there have been cognitive changes and hence biological changes within individuals. Further, stereotype threat is a very real problem created by a socially constructed label. Until race as a social construct is eliminated, something that will not happen in the near future, it is important to find ways to help those who are affected by it in a negative way. I suggest you research stereotype threat to see how much of a problem it really is for minority groups, as well as theories on biological reasons that prejudice and stereotyping still exist. Until social constructs are eliminated, problems from them will occur and at least some researchers are trying to find ways of helping diminish them.

  6. […] Sees an Obama Effect as Lifting Black Test-Takers,” in yesterday’s New York Times. …… Study Sees an Obama Effect as Lifting Black Test-Takers – Topix Study Sees an Obama Effect as […]

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