Stereotype Threat, Obama Effect, and Social Memory

Posted on April 4, 2009 by


It’s a question I’ve been interested in since I read Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel when he compared his academic knowledge of biology with the knowledge of “uneducated” healers. It’s a question that evolution, Darwinism explained away by saying that colored people were closer to apes than “normal”, “regular” white humans.

The question: Why aren’t brown, black, yellow people the ones coming up with scientific and technological innovation? Why do disparities in educational attainment, test scores, income persist between racial and ethnic demographics persist? Why aren’t people seeing that this is their opportunity to pull themsleves up by the bootstraps?

Most saliently, most importantly, and straight to the point, are people of color inherently retarded or something that they can’t do simple stuff like go to college and earn middle-class income jobs?

Those questions act as reinforcements of a documented social psychological phenomena called the Stereotype Threat.

Countering 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, 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.

…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.

…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.

Even though it’s a very small sample and over a small time period on one test, it’s something to be looked at and hopefully taken into account with our mega-informocracy and online social networking.

Obama’s position as the most powerful man of one of the most powerful nations on the planet and his identity as the product of a multi-racial demographic primed the African-American testtakers for confidence.  The idea is that those clips of  Obama, a positive achievement by an individual who is categorized with African-American seem to work subconsciously on its viewers’ confidence and is directly correlated to their improvements in their scores.

With priming figuring prominently in this study, this should bring up the question of what everyday media from the school to the public and popular discourse primes students from historically disadvantaged demographics to think the way they do.  This brings up questions of social memory:  what do demographics internalize and take with them as somewhat important when they take the test?  What kind of baggage do they carry with them?  How does that baggage manifest itself in the unconscious and implicit memories?

Trailing off my posting on identity and amnesia, I’m thinking that if members of the African-American demographic did not carry the socially-constructed meme that they were inherently intellectually inferior in the first place, there wouldn’t be as many gaps.  It seems like there would need to be a mass social amnesia about that meme.

* * * * *

The correlation is interesting, but I look for direct cause

I’d say that the clips of Obama winning the election on average put those African-American test-takers in a less conscious and more procedural, fluid state wherein their working memories weren’t as taxed.  They were less apprehensive, and probably felt a sense of less apprehension going into the test.

The best metaphor I can make to that is the perception of a trip to and from a certain point.  The trip to a certain point seems longer most of the time.  Trips to basketball Sundays in Los Angeles from Panorama City seem really really long.  I’m thinking about how I’m going to play, who I’m going to face, the music that’s getting me psyched up.  However after I’ve won a few games had a good game, the trip back from Los Angeles back to Panorama City passes by pretty quickly.  Half the time I don’t know what music is playing, and I just feel good.

A long road getting to a place, versus the short trip back.

Perhaps members of ethnic minority groups are likely to perceive of these tests in a similar way I perceive a trip to the basketball game — an uphill trudge where they haven’t accomplished anything and there is plenty of apprehension, whereas majority groups, who are much more likely to see and know a lot of people in their personal networks who’ve succeeded, conceive of the tests as a mere formality.

Posted in: Race, Uncategorized