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The Obama Effect and its Psychological Implications

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Message Patrick Mattimore
It’s premature to conclude that President Obama will have a significant impact upon the educational performance of black students, but it’s not too early to get excited about some psychological research predicting that might be the case.

Researchers from three American universities observed that the well-documented performance gap between white and black students virtually disappeared when students answered questions from the Graduate Record Exam after President Obama’s acceptance speech and again after his inauguration.  During a period when candidate Obama’s success was less salient last summer, the researchers had found a much wider gap in a similar test administered to a representative sampling of black and white students. The researchers have called the phenomenon of the shrinking performance gap the Obama Effect.

There are numerous caveats attending the new study. The sample size was small. The study must be replicated. Black students self-selected to take the test after the nomination speech which suggests the possibility that those students were highly motivated and that the effect may therefore apply only to a subsection of blacks. The gap did not disappear altogether but merely shrank (albeit to a level the researchers said is statistically insignificant) and only blacks who saw the nomination speech improved performance during the post nomination test administration.

Still, there is plenty of prior psychological data which point in the same direction as this newest research and give hope that the administration of President Obama might signal improved academic performance by the nation’s black students.

Beginning with an ingenious experiment in 1961, Albert Bandura helped social learning theorists recognize that individuals can learn merely by observing the behaviors of others. In Bandura’s Bobo doll experiment, children watched a television monitor in which adults punched and kicked a plastic blow-up doll. When the children subsequently were in a room with the Bobo doll, they imitated the adults’ behavior, thus providing evidence that learning occurs through modeling.

In a now famous experiment at Stanford University in the early 1970s in which a converted basement in the psychology building was turned into a block of jail cells, young men were selected at random to play either the roles of prison guards or prisoners. In the experiment, Dr. Phil Zimbardo demonstrated the powerful influence of roles, as the young men who portrayed guards became sadistic while the prisoners became meek and subservient.

Another Stanford psychologist, Claude Steele, has trail blazed research about stereotype threat. Steele has found that when a person’s social identity (race or gender, for example) is attached to a negative stereotype (blacks are intellectually inferior to whites or girls can’t do math) that person will underperform in a manner consistent with the stereotype. So when Steele gives blacks and whites the same sorts of tests the Obama Effect researchers used, he activates a negative stereotype by having the blacks check off their race on a pre-test form and telling them it is a test of intellectual ability. With those prompts, blacks perform much worse than when no such prompts are provided.   

What the Obama Effect does is create a new model for blacks, revamp traditional notions of the type of role that blacks fit within American society, and turn the intellectual inferiority stereotype on its head.

There is another potentially significant benefit that might accrue educationally to blacks from the Obama Presidency. Learning is bi-directional. That is, while students learn from teachers, teachers also learn from their students and are subject to the same stereotypes as the rest of us. If teachers truly believe that their black students are just as capable as any other students, the performance gap takes another hit.

In an experiment from the 1960s, Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobsen studied the effects of creating teacher expectations about students’ subsequent performances. When teachers were told that, based upon students’ tests at the end of a school year certain students could be expected to show significant intellectual gains the following year, the identified students did make significant gains relative to other students. However, the “significant progress” students had been chosen at random by the researchers and so there was no reason they should have made unusual strides. Rosenthal and Jacobsen concluded that when teachers have certain expectations about students they create a self-fulfilling prophesy in which the students perform to the level of the expectations.

Even if the new President does nothing to change American educational policy, his continuing presence might help reverse one of education’s most intractable problems- the school achievement gap between blacks and other races.

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Freelance journalist; fellow, Institute for Analytic Journalism.
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