Well it’s finally over. The prelude to what will be the most important election of my lifetime ended last week. Now the more grueling trudge of a 5 month general election campaign begins. Amidst all the virtually unprecedented drama and thrills provided by 54 primaries and caucuses throughout the first half of 2008, an unforeseen phenomenon occurred. During the nominating process, psychology, at best only a small blip on the political radar screen previously, achieved a level of distinction in the election process which was heretofore nearly unimaginable. For the first time, from my perspective, psychology rose to play an influential role in two key areas of the election process.
First, there was no mistaking the fact that all the top Democratic candidates uncharacteristically sought consultation with psychology researchers for input about enhancing their appeal to voters. No doubt this grew from the fact that in at least the last two Presidential elections, the Bush team outfoxed the Ds. Second, psychological research has not only been recognized but is being closely examined and utilized by the Democratic hierarchy to shed light on the two most critical issues emerging during the long primary season, how the race and gender of candidates affects voters.
It really is a testament to how far psychology has come in politics that the darling of election campaign consultants in 2008 has been none other than one of our own psychologist colleagues. It’s true. Drew Westen, a professor of psychology at Emory University and author of a book called “The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation” has climbed in stature rapidly to become THE go-to consultant for many Democratic candidates including both Hillary and Barack.
Westen takes the unlikely position that the Democratic Party should, for the most part, forget about issues, policies, even facts, and instead focus on feelings. Now there’s a novel idea for a psychologist. “The Political Brain” takes a different tack than another recent popular political tome, “What’s the Matter With Kansas?” by Thomas Frank or Al Gore’s “Assault on Reason,” which try to explain voter behavior in terms of self-interest and factual analysis.
Westen’s message is the exact opposite. Franks and Gore explain why we should be more rational instead of why we should bring more passion into politics.
What he calls “the dispassionate view of the mind” which has guided Democratic thinking for 40 years is deeply flawed according to Westen. What decides elections, he maintains, are people’s emotional reactions, even if they don’t know it.
In his book, Westen describes an experiment he conducted in the fall of 2004 on committed Democrats and Republicans. Subjects had their brains scanned while they viewed slides containing pairs of contradictory statements from their favored candidate (George W. Bush or John Kerry). Confronted with the unwelcome contradictions, each subject’s network of neurons associated with distress and regulating emotions (the right frontal lobe, the insula and amygdala) lit up. But soon the subjects found ways to deny that there was any significant contradiction, and calm returned.
The neural circuits charged with regulation of emotional states seemed to recruit beliefs — even false ones — that would eliminate the distress each subject was experiencing as interpreted by Westen. Meanwhile, the reasoning centers of the brain — the part to which writers like Mr. Gore appeal — were quiet.
What’s more, the neural circuits responsible for positive emotions turned on as soon as the subject found a way to resolve the contradictions — reinforcing the faulty reasoning. Westen summed it up: “people think with the gut.”
Clearly, the 2008 campaign, thus far, has been subjected to more psychological analysis than one of Freud’s Vienna analysands. And, the good news is that psychology’s forecasts have held up very well. A cursory look at the data does seem to confirm that voters are driven more by emotions than by a rational, logical analysis of a candidate’s record and positions. Take, for instance, the fact that so many anti-immigration Republicans pulled the lever for McCain. Or the fact that Hillary’s well constructed, highly engineered tenpoint plans didn’t move voters as powerfully as Barack’s inspirational oratory. Also, unconscious motivations appear to be stronger than conscious ones, which might explain the impact of the growing and not so subtle role of racism and sexism in the campaign.
The literature on racism and sexism, some of which examines voting behavior, is most thought provoking, even if it lacks consistency. I wanted to subject myself to a couple of the measures currently being used to shed light on this area. So, I tested myself, online, using two instruments social psychologists have developed for assessing implicit associations regarding race. I took an on-line University of Chicago test twice because I didn’t like my first score which showed bias against black armed models. The second testing then revealed bias against the white armed models. Yes, I broke all the research design rules and possibly confirmed nothing more than the fact that I’m a researcher’s worst nightmare, and also my own defensiveness.
Try one of the tests at: http://backhand. uchicago.edu/Center/ShooterEffect/
You’ll probably find, as the majority of test takers do, that much to your surprise, you show bias as well. Most whites and many blacks are quicker to shoot blacks than whites, no matter how egalitarian they profess to be.
Harvard, too, posts a battery of psychological tests online. These creative implicit association tests purportedly demonstrate that a stunningly large proportion of people who honestly believe themselves to be egalitarian unconsciously associate good with white and bad with black.
Social psychologist, Susan Fiske at Princeton, known for her work on social cognition, stereotypes, and prejudice, says that inter-group biases are startlingly automatic. She argues that people categorize other people based on age, race, and gender in milliseconds and then have visceral responses to those categories in milliseconds, too.
Fortunately, it is believed that these responses can be modified. For example, a member of an athletic team that includes someone from a different racial or social group is much less likely to stereotype that person. And a person motivated by values of fairness or harmony may employ a more individuating kind of process to override the automatic response according to Fiske.
John Tooby, at UC Santa Barbara’s Center for Evolutionary Psychology, ran an experiment which put blacks and whites in sports jerseys as if they belonged to two basketball teams. People looking at the photos logged the players in their memories more by team than by race, recalling a player’s jersey color but not necessarily his or her race. Of note, only very rarely did people forget whether a player was male or female.
Tooby hypothesizes that we can make categorization by race go away, but we could never make gender categorization go away. Tooby further suggests that looking at the challenges that black and female candidates face in overcoming unconscious bias, based on the underlying psychology and anthropology, it may be just as, and possibly more difficult for a woman, though not impossible.
Now throw into this mix of these social psychology views, some lessons learned from the in vivo election process, and the picture becomes murkier and murkier.
Remember in January, when Obama handily defeated Clinton in the Iowa caucuses, and polls going into the New Hampshire primary had him running ahead of her by up to 13 points. Yet, when the returns came in from NH, Obama lost by three points. Some attributed this to flaws in the polling, but others attributed the wide disparity to an instance of the Bradley Effect. The Bradley Effect refers to an electoral phenomenon first identified in a 1982 California gubernatorial election. Tom Bradley, the popular mayor of Los Angeles, was the supposed frontrunner in an open race for the state’s top job. Polls showed the African-American Democrat running well ahead of the white Republican candidate, George Deukmejian. Much to everyone’s surprise, when the returns came in, Bradley lost by more than 50,000 votes.
The result made no sense. The gubernatorial election was one of the few Democratic losses in what was a good year for the Ds. Bradley was an able politician with a sound record. Analysts took a new look at the polls, which seemed to have been conducted appropriately and questioned themselves vigorously.
They ultimately hit on the notion that white voters, not wanting to be thought of as prejudiced against an African-American candidate, had told pollsters they were for Bradley when they had always intended to vote for Deukmejian.
This occurrence was to be seen again in 1989, when Virginians were electing a new governor. African-American Democrat Doug Wilder held a solid lead over white Republican Marshall Coleman – nine points in some polls. Yet, on election night, results showed him winning by less than one point.
In 1990, when African-American Democrat Harvey Gantt challenged white Republican incumbent Jesse Helms for a North Carolina Senate seat, polls had Gantt ahead by four to six percentage points. On election night, however, Helms prevailed by four points.
As if the specter of racism in the 2008 election is not distressing enough, we need to also consider the equally insidious role of sexism in this year’s biggest electoral contest. The conventional wisdom for most suggests that Barack Obama faced a higher bar than Hillary Clinton during the primary selection process, as racism is thought to be more potent than sexism, but research, as that suggested above, seems to suggest that this may not necessarily be true.
Public opinion polls show consistently that a substantial portion (9 out of 10) of the American public would vote for a qualified female presidential candidate. However, factor social desirability into these responses and we see a far different result. Using an unobtrusive measure called the “list experiment,” Matthew Streb, Barbara Burrell, Brian Frederick at Northern Illinois University, and Michael Genovese of Loyola Marymount University found in a 2006 study that public opinion polls are indeed exaggerating support for a female president. Roughly 26 percent of the public is “angry or upset” about the prospect of a female president.
The research findings indicate a significant percentage of survey respondents are hiding their true feelings, most probably to avoid the appearance of being sexist. The findings were consistent among both male and female respondents across several demographic groups. Perhaps the Bradley Effect may henceforth be referred to as the Bradley/Clinton Effect.
These kinds of measures give fuel to the argument that the unconscious is playing a political role this year. The evidence is substantial that Americans have unconscious biases both against blacks and against women in executive roles.
The challenge for women competing in politics or business is likely to be less misogyny than unconscious sexism: Americans don’t hate women, but they do frequently stereotype them as warm and friendly, creating a mismatch with the stereotype we hold of leaders as tough and strong. So voters (women as well as men, though a bit less so) may feel that a female candidate is not the right person for the job because of biases they’re not even aware of.
Nilanjana Dasgupta, a psychology professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst has written about the fact that subjects don’t have to be conscious of this prejudice and may consciously understand their belief as nothing more than a perception that the person in question simply isn’t a good fit for a tough leadership job.
Women now hold 55 percent of top jobs at American foundations but are still vastly underrepresented among political and corporate leaders — and one factor may be that those are seen as jobs requiring particular toughness. Our unconscious may feel more of a mismatch when a woman competes to be president or a C.E.O. than when she aims to lead a foundation or a university.
Women face a very difficult challenge: Those viewed as tough and strong are also typically perceived as cold and unfeminine. Many experiments have found that women have trouble being perceived as both nice and competent.
Hillary Clinton has been the poster child for this perspective. Hillary certainly was viewed by many as particularly cold and particularly uncaring. There is a reasonable case to be made that these perceptions are based precisely on the fact that she doesn’t fit the mold. Men are virtually immune from this problem.
But biases are not cast in concrete. Research subjects who were asked to think of a strong woman then showed less implicit bias about men and women. And students exposed to a large number of female professors also experienced a reduction in gender stereotypes.
A popular question making the rounds in these post-primary days is whether Hillary lost to Obama because sexism is worse than racism in this country. I, for one, don’t think so (I must disclose that I am a man). She lost, I think, because Barack ran a smarter, better organized campaign and possesses oratory skills that surpass even the best of the modern age (Kennedy, Reagan, and Bill Clinton). It is not my intent to diminish Hillary at all. Although her campaign didn’t resolve whether a woman who seems tough enough to withstand the rigors of a punishing campaign or run the military can also seem likable enough to get elected, she laid the vital groundwork for more women to throw their hats in the ring in the future.
Without question, both racism and sexism still rear their ugly heads in this country. The struggles of the primary season are not just Obama’s or Clinton’s, however. They are America‘s struggle. Obama has made it to the next level. His performance so far indicates that he is ready to wrestle with all the alligators, including explicit/conscious and implicit/ unconscious racism. Between Hillary’s and Barack’s campaigns, the two have done more than what appears on the surface. They succeeded in opening up the American political debate in a way that has been needed for a very long time. Moreover, psychology has played an important role in this process. I am confident that psychology’s role in helping to unravel the real issues driving racism and sexism in the 21st Century will continue to be of value for some time to come. And in the end, perhaps the impact of this presidential contest won’t be measured just in national policies, but also in progress in modifying our own unconscious thoughts and feelings about race and gender.