It’s called “social desirability bias”. And the voting public suffers from it.
It leads likely voters to “underestimate their own prejudices when talking to survey takers”, says Dalton Conley in the Chronicle Review.
We know we are supposed to treat all candidates the same, regardless of race or gender. So that’s what we say when they ask us. But when we go to the polls, something happens. It’s not that people walk into the voting booth and say “no way I’m voting for a woman!” No, they think “national security is really important to me” and they somehow convince themselves that the other candidate, that one who just happens to be male, is better able to look after the nation’s security interests.
(Never mind that in the same issue of the Chronicle Review, Carolyn Nordstrom explains how international illegal economic activity renders national security a meaningless concept. But that’s a story for another day. Check out her book, Global Outlaws: Crime, Money, and Power in the Contemporary World.)
Or the putative voter just somehow never makes it to the polls on the day that black candidate is vying for his or her vote against the white candidate in the other party.
Conley describes an experiment designed to get at “social desirabilty bias” among the electorate.
…when asked questions about their views of blacks, white respondents consistently appear to have grown more tolerant over the course of the last four decades.
However, recent research by Hannah Brückner and Alondra Nelson of Yale University and Ann J. Morning of New York University has shown that when they hide questions about race among other decoys, they elicit “true” responses that tend to be more racist. What they do is ask a control group how many of three statements they agree with (these are political opinions that have nothing to do with race, chosen such that most people would not agree or disagree with all of them). Then with another group, they throw in a fourth statement about race, such as, “Genetic differences contribute to income inequality between black and white people.”
If the average number of statements agreed to in the first group was one and a half out of three and for the second group (with four statements presented) was two, then we can conclude that 50 percent of respondents agreed with the statement about race. Surprisingly, perhaps, the difference in results when the question is hidden — compared with asking directly about bias toward blacks — was greatest for highly educated people and for women. That is, it is these groups that were most susceptible to social-desirability bias with respect to their racial attitudes.
Okay, did you hear that? Greatest for highly educated people and for women. Yikes. We’re just doing a better job of hiding our bias from ourselves and others, it would appear.
Conley compares the results of this experiment to results of Project Implicit at Harvard University, which has documented the existence of subtle bias, even hidden bias that people have against members of their own group.
About half of blacks, for example, demonstrated anti-black bias.
Yes, nobody’s exempt from implicit bias – sadly.
Conley notes that often the most effective advocate for a particular cause is someone who is not a member of the group most closely connected to the cause – straight people speaking up for gay rights, a former prisoner of war arguing for normalizing relations with Vietnam. And he notes that it is George W. Bush who has given us the most diverse cabinet, with respect to gender and race, that we’ve ever seen. Diversity of thought in that cabinet is of course another issue, he wryly comments.
And that brings me to the consideration of whether, in the end, Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama are really electable at this point in history, no matter what the survey-takers are finding in their numerous polls. I discussed this last week with a political scientist friend of mine, who thinks the answer is no. She thinks our first female or black president has to be a conservative, someone more in the Margaret Thatcher mode. And since Colin Powell says he won’t run, that leaves me with Condoleezza Rice. Though I think she’s more likely to take office as our first female Vice-President, not President. Nobody’s ready to have a black woman as a president, no matter what they say, and I don’t care how conservative she is.
Think about how desirable Colin Powell has appeared to conservative voters as a potential presidential candidate – they’ve practically begged him to run. Now compare that to the huge controversy over Barack Obama’s actual candidacy. Colin Powell’s conservative cred cancels out his unfortunate state of non-whiteness, just as Condoleezza’s in-your-face conservatism stops men from worrying about a woman – and a black woman, at that! – being Secretary of State. Hillary and Barack, even in 2007, are still ahead of their time. We need one or two conservative leaders to show us that the nation doesn’t crumble to dust when a non-white or non-male is in power, before we can allow a non-white or non-male who is also a namby-pamby liberal into the power chair.
I would really like to be wrong about all this, you know. Maybe I’d be less gloomy if I hadn’t spent so much of my life hanging out with engineers, seeing up close and personal the impact of implicit bias. So maybe we should all follow Dalton Conley’s advice for how to get around our hidden, implicit biases as voters:
So here’s an experiment for 2008 (yes, try this at home): If you are really concerned about which candidate will do better for blacks, Latinos, women, or any other identity group, get a friend to print out the candidates’ stump speeches, interviews, and policy statements — and delete any mention of their identity with a black marker. Then read the text and decide whose policies you think would benefit disadvantaged Americans the most, who has the clearest plans, and who is most likely to be able to see those plans through. Find out whose policies you were reading and vote for that person. Or, if you don’t have the energy for that, at least close your eyes when the candidates are speaking, and focus on the words. We shouldn’t be fooled by either our own hidden biases or by the promise of personal identity. It’s the policies (and the ability to carry them out), stupid.