Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


Unconscious Bias Amplifies Anti-Obama Rhetoric

• May 10, 2010 • 10:00 AM

New research finds unconscious racial bias makes anti-Obama rhetoric seem more persuasive.

Deeply ingrained but largely unconscious negative attitudes toward African Americans influenced opinions of candidate Barack Obama, and presumably prejudice the way they view his presidency. That’s the conclusion of a newly published study that found subtle racial bias increased the persuasive power of anti-Obama rhetoric — including one patently ridiculous charge.

“Although most contemporary Americans deny racial bias, when race is non-consciously activated, people become more susceptible to negative claims about African Americans,” the research team, led by University of Colorado psychologist Tom Pyszczynski write in the Journal of Experimental Psychology. The study found this dynamic very much applied to Barack Obama during the late stages of the 2008 campaign.

One month before the election, Pyszczynyski and his colleagues gathered 62 women and 26 men, all of non-African descent. All were asked to engage in a creative writing task: specifically, to compose a brief story about a fictional student. For half, the student had the stereotypically black name Tyrone Walker; for the other half, he had the stereotypically white name of Brad Walker.

The participants then read one of three editorials about Barack Obama. One presented purported evidence that the Illinois senator was the Antichrist. A second, more measured but negative essay called him unpatriotic and friendly to terrorists. The third simply presented his positions on various issues in a neutral tone.

Afterward, participants evaluated Obama and Republican candidate John McCain in various ways (rating such statements as “Obama is too inexperienced” and “McCain is too old”) and reported who they planned to vote for.

The most striking result involved those who read the editorial suggesting Obama is the Antichrist. For members of that group, writing about “Tyrone Walker” decreased support for Obama, but writing about “Brad Walker” increased support for him. (Both scores were measured against those who had read the neutral essay.) The racial priming apparently made the outlandish charge easier to accept, or at least contemplate.

“The fact the Antichrist editorial led to increased preference for Obama in the absence of racial priming shows that the Antichrist claims were not persuasive when racial concerns were not activated,” the researchers write. “These findings thus help explain the impact of extreme and otherwise unpersuasive claims, by demonstrating that activation of racial concerns makes them more persuasive.”

To Pyszczynski and his colleagues, this confirms previous research suggesting “racial attitudes are more influenced by disguised forms of racial animosity that people are unwilling to admit to others or themselves.” They note that, although race was never overtly discussed in the experiment, thinking about a black male “decreased preference for Obama when either mainstream or Antichrist criticisms were lodged against him.”

The research — along with an earlier study linking implicit prejudice with opposition to Obama’s health care proposals — suggests the current debate over whether members in the virtually all-white Tea Party movement are racists largely misses the point. Even among people who don’t consider themselves racists, unconscious bias can clearly play a role in shaping their views of political figures.

This helps explain why definitively disproved claims, such as the charge the president was born outside the U.S., continue to be believed by many Americans. As the researchers conclude, “An unfortunate side effect of Obama’s ethic identity, and that of others leaders and politicians of color, is that it may discourage rational debate.”

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

More From Tom Jacobs

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 24 • 4:00 PM

We Need to Normalize Drug Use in Our Society

After the disastrous misconceptions of the 20th century, we’re returning to the idea that drugs are an ordinary part of life experience and no more cause addiction than do other behaviors. This is rational and welcome.


October 24 • 2:00 PM

A Letter to the Next Attorney General: Fix Presidential Pardons

More than two years ago, a series showed that white applicants were far more likely to receive clemency than comparable applicants who were black. Since then, the government has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on a study, but the pardons system remains unchanged.


October 24 • 12:00 PM

What Makes You So Smart, Middle School Math Teacher?

Noah Davis talks to Vern Williams about what makes middle school—yes, middle school—so great.


October 24 • 10:00 AM

Why DNA Is One of Humanity’s Greatest Inventions

How we’ve co-opted our genetic material to change our world.


October 24 • 8:00 AM

What Do Clowns Think of Clowns?

Three major players weigh in on the current state of the clown.


October 24 • 7:13 AM

There Is No Surge in Illegal Immigration

The overall rate of illegal immigration has actually decreased significantly in the last 10 years. The time is ripe for immigration reform.


October 24 • 6:15 AM

Politicians Really Aren’t Better Decision Makers

Politicians took part in a classic choice experiment but failed to do better than the rest of us.


October 24 • 5:00 AM

Why We Gossip: It’s Really All About Ourselves

New research from the Netherlands finds stories we hear about others help us determine how we’re doing.


October 24 • 2:00 AM

Congratulations, Your City Is Dying!

Don’t take population numbers at face value.


October 23 • 4:00 PM

Of Course Marijuana Addiction Exists

The polarized legalization debate leads to exaggerated claims and denials about pot’s potential harms. The truth lies somewhere in between.


October 23 • 2:00 PM

American Companies Are Getting Way Too Cozy With the National Security Agency

Newly released documents describe “contractual relationships” between the NSA and U.S. companies, as well as undercover operatives.


October 23 • 12:00 PM

The Man Who’s Quantifying New York City

Noah Davis talks to the proprietor of I Quant NY. His methodology: a little something called “addition.”


October 23 • 11:02 AM

Earliest High-Altitude Settlements Found in Peru

Discovery suggests humans adapted to high altitude faster than previously thought.


October 23 • 10:00 AM

The Psychology of Bribery and Corruption

An FBI agent offered up confidential information about a political operative’s enemy in exchange for cash—and they both got caught. What were they thinking?


October 23 • 8:00 AM

Ebola News Gives Me a Guilty Thrill. Am I Crazy?

What it means to feel a little excited about the prospect of a horrific event.


October 23 • 7:04 AM

Why Don’t Men Read Romance Novels?

A lot of men just don’t read fiction, and if they do, structural misogyny drives them away from the genre.


October 23 • 6:00 AM

Why Do Americans Pray?

It depends on how you ask.


October 23 • 4:00 AM

Musicians Are Better Multitaskers

New research from Canada finds trained musicians more efficiently switch from one mental task to another.


October 22 • 4:00 PM

The Last Thing the Women’s Movement Needs Is a Heroic Male Takeover

Is the United Nations’ #HeForShe campaign helping feminism?


October 22 • 2:00 PM

Turning Public Education Into Private Profits

Baker Mitchell is a politically connected North Carolina businessman who celebrates the power of the free market. Every year, millions of public education dollars flow through Mitchell’s chain of four non-profit charter schools to for-profit companies he controls.


October 22 • 12:00 PM

Will the End of a Tax Loophole Kill Off Irish Business and Force Google and Apple to Pay Up?

U.S. technology giants have constructed international offices in Dublin in order to take advantage of favorable tax policies that are now changing. But Ireland might have enough other draws to keep them there even when costs climb.


October 22 • 10:00 AM

Veterans in the Ivory Tower

Why there aren’t enough veterans at America’s top schools—and what some people are trying to do to change that.


October 22 • 8:00 AM

Our Language Prejudices Don’t Make No Sense

We should embrace the fact that there’s no single recipe for English. Making fun of people for replacing “ask” with “aks,” or for frequently using double negatives just makes you look like the unsophisticated one.


October 22 • 7:04 AM

My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.


October 22 • 6:00 AM

How We Form Our Routines

Whether it’s a morning cup of coffee or a glass of warm milk before bed, we all have our habitual processions. The way they become engrained, though, varies from person to person.


Follow us


Politicians Really Aren’t Better Decision Makers

Politicians took part in a classic choice experiment but failed to do better than the rest of us.

Earliest High-Altitude Settlements Found in Peru

Discovery suggests humans adapted to high altitude faster than previously thought.

My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.

That Cigarette Would Make a Great Water Filter

Clean out the ashtray, add some aluminum oxide, and you've (almost) got yourself a low-cost way to remove arsenic from drinking water.

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they're motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.