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 31 • 4:00 PM

Should the Victims of the War on Drugs Receive Reparations?

A drug war Truth and Reconciliation Commission along the lines of post-apartheid South Africa is a radical idea proposed by the Green Party. Substance.com asks their candidates for New York State’s gubernatorial election to tell us more.


October 31 • 2:00 PM

India’s Struggle to Get Reliable Power to Hundreds of Millions of People

India’s new Prime Minister Narendra Modi is known as a “big thinker” when it comes to energy. But in his country’s case, could thinking big be a huge mistake?


October 31 • 12:00 PM

In the Picture: SNAP Food Benefits, Birthday Cake, and Walmart

In every issue, we fix our gaze on an everyday photograph and chase down facts about details in the frame.


October 31 • 10:15 AM

Levels of Depression Could Be Evaluated Through Measurements of Acoustic Speech

Engineers find tell-tale signs in speech patterns of the depressed.


October 31 • 8:00 AM

Who Wants a Cute Congressman?

You probably do—even if you won’t admit it. In politics, looks aren’t everything, but they’re definitely something.


October 31 • 7:00 AM

Why Scientists Make Promises They Can’t Keep

A research proposal that is totally upfront about the uncertainty of the scientific process and its potential benefits might never pass governmental muster.


October 31 • 6:12 AM

The Psychology of a Horror Movie Fan

Scientists have tried to figure out the appeal of axe murderers and creepy dolls, but it mostly remains a spooky mystery.


October 31 • 4:00 AM

The Power of Third Person Plural on Support for Public Policies

Researchers find citizens react differently to policy proposals when they’re framed as impacting “people,” as opposed to “you.”


October 30 • 4:00 PM

I Should Have Told My High School Students About My Struggle With Drinking

As a teacher, my students confided in me about many harrowing aspects of their lives. I never crossed the line and shared my biggest problem with them—but now I wish I had.


October 30 • 2:00 PM

How Dark Money Got a Mining Company Everything It Wanted

An accidentally released court filing reveals how one company secretly gave money to a non-profit that helped get favorable mining legislation passed.


October 30 • 12:00 PM

The Halloween Industrial Complex

The scariest thing about Halloween might be just how seriously we take it. For this week’s holiday, Americans of all ages will spend more than $5 billion on disposable costumes and bite-size candy.


October 30 • 10:00 AM

Sky’s the Limit: The Case for Selling Air Rights

Lower taxes and debt, increased revenue for the city, and a much better use of space in already dense environments: Selling air rights and encouraging upward growth seem like no-brainers, but NIMBY resistance and philosophical barriers remain.


October 30 • 9:00 AM

Cycles of Fear and Bias in the Criminal Justice System

Exploring the psychological roots of racial disparity in U.S. prisons.


October 30 • 8:00 AM

How Do You Make a Living, Email Newsletter Writer?

Noah Davis talks to Wait But Why writer Tim Urban about the newsletter concept, the research process, and escaping “money-flushing toilet” status.



October 30 • 6:00 AM

Dreamers of the Carbon-Free Dream

Can California go full-renewable?


October 30 • 5:08 AM

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it’s probably something we should work on.


October 30 • 4:00 AM

He’s Definitely a Liberal—Just Check Out His Brain Scan

New research finds political ideology can be easily determined by examining how one’s brain reacts to disgusting images.


October 29 • 4:00 PM

Should We Prosecute Climate Change Protesters Who Break the Law?

A conversation with Bristol County, Massachusetts, District Attorney Sam Sutter, who dropped steep charges against two climate change protesters.


October 29 • 2:23 PM

Innovation Geography: The Beginning of the End for Silicon Valley

Will a lack of affordable housing hinder the growth of creative start-ups?


October 29 • 2:00 PM

Trapped in the Tobacco Debt Trap

A refinance of Niagara County, New York’s tobacco bonds was good news—but for investors, not taxpayers.


October 29 • 12:00 PM

Purity and Self-Mutilation in Thailand

During the nine-day Phuket Vegetarian Festival, a group of chosen ones known as the mah song torture themselves in order to redirect bad luck and misfortune away from their communities and ensure a year of prosperity.


October 29 • 10:00 AM

Can Proposition 47 Solve California’s Problem With Mass Incarceration?

Reducing penalties for low-level felonies could be the next step in rolling back draconian sentencing laws and addressing the criminal justice system’s long legacy of racism.


October 29 • 9:00 AM

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.


October 29 • 8:00 AM

America’s Bathrooms Are a Total Failure

No matter which American bathroom is crowned in this year’s America’s Best Restroom contest, it will still have a host of terrible flaws.


Follow us


Levels of Depression Could Be Evaluated Through Measurements of Acoustic Speech

Engineers find tell-tale signs in speech patterns of the depressed.

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it's probably something we should work on.

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.

Incumbents, Pray for Rain

Come next Tuesday, rain could push voters toward safer, more predictable candidates.

Could Economics Benefit From Computer Science Thinking?

Computational complexity could offer new insight into old ideas in biology and, yes, even the dismal science.

The Big One

One town, Champlain, New York, was the source of nearly half the scams targeting small businesses in the United States last year. November/December 2014

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