Thus Spake Zuska

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 Br├╝ckner 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.

Comments

  1. #1 Tegumai Bopsulai, FCD
    August 9, 2007

    Wow, “social desirability bias” – so it has nothing to do with Rice’s intimate involvement with the worst failures of the Bush administration?

  2. #2 Phil Goodman
    August 9, 2007

    Behaviorism studies are nothing to hang one’s hat on. Human behavioral models are as unavoidably limited as any other reductionist description of a chaos system.

    “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.”

    This is an argument? You reference a limited data set to imply a general conclusion regarding the pervasiveness of unacknowledged prejudice that exceeds the scope of the supporting evidence. Why? Hidden bias?

  3. #3 Toby
    August 9, 2007

    At the start of Bush’s second term, Condolezza Rice was widely touted as a possible successor, “bearer of the Bush legacy”.

    Despite the sharp intellect, the good looks, the impeccable credentials, her term as Secretary of State has been a whole heap of nothing. Let’s leave aside her questionable role as Bush’s National Security Advisor at the start of the Iraq War. Other than that, can anyone name a single instance where she has had an impact, anywhere in the world?

    Last summer, the war in Lebanon was her big chance, when she was supposed to arrive in the Middle East after the Israelis had destroyed Hezbollah. Her allocated role was to act as power broker to oversee Syria and Iran’s humiliation as the Sinora government extended its rule over all of the Lebanon.

    Sadly, an inept Israeli effort and a determined Hezbollah stand led to at best a draw, at worst a defeat. In the end, events seemed to slip from her control as the Israelis and the Americans had to take the best settlement they could get, or pound “democratic” Lebanon to rubble.

    Now she has a chance again as she tries to concoct some sort of Middle East settlement. Ironically, George W. Bush was openly contemptuous of Clinton’s efforts towards the end of his second term. Bush was not a nation builder, he told us, he would step back and let the two sides get on with it (in practice, this meant giving Israel free rein).

    Now, as the shadows lengthen on his own term, Bush and his rather hapless Secretary of State, are making halting moves in the same direction as Clinton, under far, far worse conditions.

    Condolezza Rice may have a lot of advantages on paper as a Presidential candidate. In practice, she has as good a chance of being elected President as Donald Rumsfeld.

  4. #4 Zuska
    August 9, 2007

    Just in case it was not absolutely clear to anyone from what I wrote: I do not support Condoleezza Rice as a presidential (or even VP) candidate. Nor do I support anything that comes out of the Dubya administration. Nor do I think they have been much of a success at anything they have put their hands to.

    However, I do not think that success (or lack thereof) is a particularly important criterion when it comes to decision time for many voters. I mean, this nation re-elected George Bush, after all. The main point I am trying to make here is that the majority people will love a non-traditional candidate who is a conservative much sooner than they will love a non-traditional candidate who is a liberal. Or, should I say, they will be made to feel less uneasy by a conservative non-traditional candidate. The conservatism compensates for being non-white and/or non-male.

    The analogy I meant to draw to engineering (and did a poor job, since most of it went on in my head instead of going into the blog post) was my observation that male engineers are comfortable with women engineers who do not agitate for women’s or minority issues in engineering, who do not concern themselves with access and climate, who insist that they’ve never been discriminated against and that everybody should just be judged on their merits, as if that is what happens all the time except for when the bleeding heart liberals start talking about affirmative action. They will love a woman like this, and point to her as an example that there is nothing wrong and any woman can succeed if she only tries and they aren’t biased because there is this one woman they admire.

    Conservatives love Condoleezza, because she helps them feel not prejudiced, and she can out-conservative any of them, so she doesn’t threaten their worldview with any of that ridiculous liberal claptrap. What she’s accomplished is a separate question. I don’t think she’s a strong presidential candidate but I think she would be completely acceptable as a VP.

    Phil, I’m not sure why the antipathy to behavioral studies. Are you suggesting there’s absolutely nothing we can reliably learn about human behavior by, well, studying humans and their behavior?

  5. #5 bigTom
    August 9, 2007

    Back around 04 Condi’s potential as a candidate seemed pretty real. But now I think anyone not conservative has concluded she’s either too weak (to stand up to Bush/Cheney), or not very bright after all.

    But you might be right after all. I think those of us intellectuals who examine policy first, and characer second, are outnumbered by those who vote because they like the way a candidate looks/sounds.

    Baring an upset in the early primaries, it looks like its gonna be Hillary versus a white male.

  6. #6 Kurt
    August 9, 2007

    Nixon opening up relations with China is probably another good example of this phenomenon. Although I agree with you on the general principle, I think that the Republicans have done such a horrible job running the country under the current administration that this fact will outweigh any squeamishness people might have with electing a liberal non-(white male).

    Although Clinton may have an edge currently amongst Democratic voters, I think Obama would probably do better at getting crossover support from conservatives. Either way, though, I’m very optimistic that we’ll have a non-traditional candidate elected president next election.

  7. #7 Coin
    August 10, 2007

    Wow, “social desirability bias” – so it has nothing to do with Rice’s intimate involvement with the worst failures of the Bush administration?

    So far she’s doing a bafflingly good job of distancing herself from her own actions. And America has a short memory– look at how many people who took unfavorable positions during, say, Watergate or Iran-Contra were able to pop back up later doing other things as if nothing had happened. I estimate that in ten years, every single person involved in the Bush administration will still be highly politically radioactive– except Rice. There, America will forgive but mostly forget.

  8. #8 Drugmonkey
    August 11, 2007

    I’m kinda bummed Condi burned out so badly as a potential candidate for 08. I was really looking forward to the angst. Hold your nose and vote for a black/woman conservative over, say, whiter-than-tighties edwards? I mean, what’s 4 years against breaking the glass ceiling forever… We coulda had some serious soul searching going on…

  9. #9 Malyze
    August 12, 2007

    A black female candidate would also have the advantage of likely pulling away votes from two groups that tend Democratic–women and African-Americans, so perhaps we should be glad the Republican party has managed to only drag up the usual white, male subjects. Still, it would have been fun to see a race between Clinton or Obama and Rice.

    Those sorts of studies do make me worry that non-white-male candidates are getting shot down because of subtle biases. People are very good at rationalizing their choices and will probably tell themselves that it’s for policy decisions. Here’s an idea: let’s hold blind auditions for president–give the candidates androgynous pseudonyms and hold policy discussions solely through written discourse, which would probably improve the level of discussion as well. Even better, than we wouldn’t have to suffer through all those annoying campaign ads and flyers. Ah, impossible dreams :)

  10. #10 CCPhysicist
    August 14, 2007

    My reading of politics agrees with yours. You cannot believe what people tell pollsters, and lots of people don’t talk to them at all. Even the primaries only tell part of the story because so few people vote.

    By the way, my opinion is that there will be a hung convention with something bizarre like a Gore-Clinton ticket as a result. If you have never seen a real convention, and I’ll wager that few of you have, go read “The Making of the President – 1960″. Lots of tasty stuff there.

    As for going against type, don’t overlook that “W” has looked more like LBJ than Reagan. Massive deficits driven by a guns-and-butter budget, refusal to pay the full cost of the war, huge growth in Medicare. Ah, those were the days.

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