The Frontal Cortex

Obama and Stereotype Threat

The NY Times reports on a fascinating new study showing that Obama’s election has improved the test scores of African Americans, at least in this one very small study which has yet to undergo peer-review:

Now researchers 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.”

Claude Steele, a professor of psychology at Stanford, has pioneered the study of this psychological effect, which is known as stereotype threat. (I talk about stereotype threat in my book in the context of explaining why athletes choke under pressure.) When Steele gave a large group of Stanford sophomores a set of questions from the Graduate Record Examination (GRE), and told the students that it would measure their innate intellectual ability, he found that the white students performed significantly better than their black counterparts. This discrepancy⎯commonly known as the achievement gap⎯conformed to a large body of data showing that minority students tend to score lower on a wide variety of standardized tests, from the SAT to the IQ test.

However, when Steele gave a separate group of students the same test but stressed that it was not a measure of intelligence⎯he told them it was merely a preparatory drill⎯the scores of the white and black students were virtually identical. The achievement gap had largely been closed. According to Steele, the disparity in test scores was caused by an effect that he calls “stereotype threat”. When black students are told that they are taking a test to measure their intelligence, it brings to mind, rather forcefully, the ugly and untrue stereotype that blacks are less intelligent than whites. (Steele conducted his experiments soon after The Bell Curve was published. But the same effect also exists when women take a math test that supposedly measures “cognitive differences between the genders,” or when white males are exposed to a stereotype about the academic superiority of Asians.) The Stanford sophomores were so worried about being viewed through the lens of a negative stereotype that they performed far below their abilities.

If this study is replicated – and that’s a big if – it would be tangible proof of this historic moment, evidence that change has filtered all the way down from the White House to the individual mind.

Via Andrew Sullivan

Comments

  1. #1 Prof MTH
    January 26, 2009

    Simply retaking the same exam can cause scores to increase. (Kaplan makes big bucks on this phenomena.) However, scores should improve for all groups. Does that mean improvements should be proportional?

  2. #2 Anibal
    January 26, 2009

    This could be a clear example of what you said in a recent post on “politics and research”. Obama´s election could bring a new look and recognition to the achievements made by black people in the arts, science and other cultural spheres.

  3. #3 The Science Pundit
    January 26, 2009

    Prof MTH:

    Simply retaking the same exam can cause scores to increase. (Kaplan makes big bucks on this phenomena.) However, scores should improve for all groups. Does that mean improvements should be proportional?

    Not necessarily. I would expect–in general–for those who did poorly the first time around to improve more than those who did well. One way of looking at it is that those who did well the first time around have less room for improvement. I would expect the same kind of gap closing improvement to happen in other endeavors–such as sports–as well, and at least the anectdotal eveidence from my own life supports this conclusion.

    By the way, are you the same ProfMTH from YouTube? If so, I like your videos.

  4. #4 Fertanish
    January 26, 2009

    There is a lot of missing data from the article which may just be abbreviated reporting, but could also point to flawed statistical data. This paragraph caught my attention:

    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.

    My initial thoughts:

    1. The difference was “statistically nonsignificant” inasmuch that we couldn’t even report the exact difference (or use an actual word, I guess). They were very willing to say the original difference was ~60% to ~42.5%…why not give the new results? Was it now 50/50? 60/58?

    2. Was the validity of the questions examined from an instructional standpoint? I could give the sampling a benefit of the doubt being from the GRE, but given other questions regarding the data, I’m not yet that generous. Two poorly constructed questions could make 10% of the test invalid, especially given the apparent diverse age of the audience.

    3. I would question a lot regarding the sampling of people, starting from the >80% white versus <20% black and on from there.

    The thing that really bugs me about reports like this based on undisclosed, if not flat out bad, mathematics, is the message behind the article. When Dillon says, “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,” it is simply extending the alleged stereotype without providing any meaningful foundation whatsoever. What earlier research? When? I just can’t help but feel that this is embedded bigotry behind false praise that blacks can now be smart because we have an African American president.

    And hell, under this theory, after eight years of our last dumbass white president, it is a wonder any Caucasian can graduate beyond the third grade.

  5. #5 Fertanish
    January 26, 2009

    Whoops, edited to add under point three: “versus less than 20% black.” I accidentally started an HTML tag, apparently.

  6. #6 Ginny Deerin
    January 26, 2009

    For the past 11 years, Wings for kids, Inc., a non-profit, has been teaching elementary school aged kids social and emotional skills. Almost all of the 2000+ kids we’ve served (most 1000+ hours of Wings)are African American. We’ve collected lots of data over the years. Since Obama displays such high emotional intelligence, I will be very curious to see if our teaching sinks in at a greater rate now that they have a strong role model. A supporter recently referred to Wings as an Obama Factory. We’re getting ready to link some of our teaching to Obama and we’ll do some measurement. Will we experience an Obama effect?

  7. #7 BenjaminL
    January 27, 2009

    Easily misinterpreted.

    Paul R. Sackett, Chaitra M. Hardison, and Michael J. Cullen, On Interpreting Stereotype Threat as Accounting for African American–White Differences on Cognitive Tests [PDF]

    C. M. Steele and J. Aronson (1995) showed that making race salient when taking a difficult test affected the performance of high-ability African American students, a phenomenon they termed stereotype threat. The authors document that this research is widely misinterpreted in both
    popular and scholarly publications as showing that eliminating stereotype threat eliminates the African American–White difference in test performance. In fact, scores were statistically adjusted for differences in students’ prior SAT performance, and thus, Steele and Aronson’s findings actually showed that absent stereotype threat, the two groups differ to the degree that would be expected based on differences in prior SAT scores. The authors caution against interpreting the Steele and Aronson experiment as evidence that stereotype threat is the primary cause of African American–White differences in test performance.

  8. #8 Christine Thompson
    January 28, 2009

    Black, white or pink….. of course what our “inner opinion” of ourself is going to effect the outcome of what we do. Either in a test score, or in living skills.

    My thoughts are that if all people realized who’s they really are, and where they really came from (and I don’t mean Africa or Switzerland ) they would know they are loved and valuable – and be successful and content in what they do.

    And…. just for the record…. President Obama is just as much “white” as he is “black” so caucasians should be having just as much incentive …. correct? :-)

  9. #9 gadfly
    January 28, 2009

    @Christine Thompson

    Well, in the popular imagination and mass-media narratives, the white part of Obama’s heritage is easily swept under the rug for convenience, which a proper essay could pretty easily argue is due to the embedded cultural notion of whiteness being related to – if not analagous with – purity. As much as I greet Obama’s election with optimism (couched heavily in skepticism), the predominant media narrative, to me, reveals in depressing clarity the depth and breadth of this “hidden” prejudice (and others). Yes, Obama’s election could be called momentous, but the flipside of this is the sad and terrible reality of so many preceding years, which even a properly administered oath of office could not have undone instantaneously.

  10. #10 Pete Smillie
    January 29, 2009

    I believe it is intuitively obvious that Obama’s election will have a positive effect on all people who are emotionally receptive to it’s uplifting realities – of which there are many .

    The scientists and quants are a little behind the curve as usual, but this evidence is welcomed.

  11. #11 Wow there
    February 2, 2009

    Pterry amazing. Image does affect exam results from people.

  12. #12 J Liu
    February 9, 2009

    I’m glad that BenjaminL posted those authors’ response to this finding on the stereotype threat. If valid, this research is relevant for a significant group of people, but it shouldn’t distract us from the massive systemic causes of the achievement gap.

  13. #13 Kay O. Sweaver
    February 21, 2009

    I agree that knowing more about the results and methodology is really essential to understanding and interpreting the results. That being said I’m inclined to believe that there is an effect.

  14. #14 berlin
    March 1, 2009

    Gut!

  15. #15 Natalie "nati" Ferraro
    March 10, 2009

    I did a vlog on this article…or rather on the podcast Radio Lab did about this article – the Obama Effect, Perhaps…

    I think they should test this theory out in fat people…since it’s an out-in-the-open totally accepted prejudice…

    also who ever said Obama is just as much white as he is black and that whites should be rejoicing just as much is downplaying a very important historical event and missing completely the point.

  16. #16 2552
    December 12, 2009

    BenjaminL:

    This page refutes that criticism and others. Controlling or not controlling for previous SAT scores did not effect whether stereotype threat caused a decrease in test scores.

    http://reducingstereotypethreat.org/criticisms.html

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