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