Washington Post: Does Your Subconscious Think Obama Is Foreign?

Washington Post

Does Your Subconscious Think Obama Is Foreign?

In a new series of experiments, Devos has shown that the “white equals American” bias could well be playing a powerful role in the presidential election. (Banaji is a registered Democrat; Devos is not an American citizen.)

During the primary season, Devos, at San Diego State University, along with colleague Debbie Ma at the University of Chicago, found that on a subconscious level, people more easily associated Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton with being American than Sen.Barack Obama. Clinton is white; Obama is biracial.

Even more remarkably, the psychologists found that the volunteers were quicker to associate former British prime minister Tony Blair with being American than Obama. Blair is white.

On a conscious level, the participants had no trouble identifying Obama and Clinton as American, and Blair as a foreigner. But Devos and Ma found that the subconscious associations mattered: People who were slower to see Obama as American on a subconscious level were less likely to be willing to vote for the senator from Illinois than people who more easily associated him with American symbols. This was true of both Republicans and Democrats.

In a final set of experiments completed just last week, Thierry said the researchers had found an identical pattern when they compared people’s subconscious associations with Obama and his Republican presidential opponent, Sen. John McCain. On a conscious level, volunteers said that both Obama and McCain were American, but on a subconscious level, volunteers were quicker to associate McCain with being American than Obama — and the strength of these subconscious associations predicted people’s voting intentions.

“The less you see Obama as American compared to McCain, the less likely you are to vote for him,” Devos said.

It is important to emphasize that the bias uncovered by the studies was subtle, and only one of many factors that go into people’s voting choices. The research in no way suggests that all of Obama’s opponents are racially biased — people who do not find Obama appealing may well reach their conclusions based on policy positions, partisan identification and personal circumstances.

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