In These Uncertain Times: The Psychological Role of the Obama Prototype

Why Being A "Prototype" Should Matter To President Obama

Posted Jun 18, 2010

When President Obama was elected into office as the 44th and current President of the United States, he made history. He was the first African American to hold the office. The result was stunning from a number of perspectives, many of which were obvious. But one not so obvious question that will be particularly relevant to the next election is: Is President Obama a prototypical President? And if so does this matter?

Broadly speaking, in this context, a prototype is a classic example or original representative of all other people in that category. With a Columbia/Harvard background, striking good looks, accompanied by attractive wife and beautiful children, three terms in the Illinois Senate and elected to the US Senate in 2004, his background met the standards for what a prototypical leader of the "free world" might look like. But through all of this, the elephant in the prototype room is that he is African American and thus departs from what a Presidential prototype might be. But why does this or should this matter?

Prototypes of "ideal" leaders differ for men and women. A recent study showed that female leaders generally favor participative, team-oriented, and charismatic leadership styles more than males do but that both men and women equally value humane leadership [1]. However, what constitutes "humane" does not always mean the same thing to individuals, as demonstrated in another study that found that when people are given the choice to save lives, they choose to save the lives of those they consider warm, competent people rather than the homeless, who, in this study, were judged as cold and incompetent. Thus, stereotypes as well as prototypes bias how we make decisions [2].

Although American prototypes for leaders show much consistency with other cultures, American managers may be more aggressive than European managers, and also differ from Asian managers in being both more forceful and more relationship-oriented [3]. Interestingly, another study showed that being "White" implies being a business leader more than being "Non-white". And "White" leaders are regarded as being more effective and having more leadership potential, but only where the leader has a history of success [4]. The latter did not apply to Non-whites. The message: we do have inbuilt biases about how we assess leaders, and yes, these pre-conceived notions that color our thinking do indeed matter.

The significance of serving as a prototype is that as a representative of a collective identity, you tend to be more effective (perceived effectiveness, job satisfaction and turnover intentions); this does matter more in uncertain times [5]. That is, people rely on the prototype-effectiveness perception more when major changes are taking place locally or on the world stage. The question this raises is: How does this affect the perception of President Obama when, at the time of his election, the sentiment of people who voted him in was akin to "anyone except one who is like the former President"? Now that the latter need is appeased in voters, how will voter biases factor into the future voting process, and again, should this matter to America?

I would contend that this is important, that we do vote for people through our automatic, subconscious, biases, and that there should be a role for addressing this in our educational systems. It would also, I believe, be intelligent to find a way to raise public awareness of how our choices may be pre-determined by our biases [6]. The Westen study in particular showed that our reasoning may be motivated by unrecognized emotional factors and raises the question: Was President Obama's election a novelty for the American psyche, and if so how do we separate this from our unconscious biases and reactions? When our reactions beat our intentions [7], what can we do about this?
From these studies we can conclude definitively that during uncertain times we will tend to rely on leadership prototypes in judging an individual's effectiveness as a leader. Since many of these and other biases are outside of our conscious control, being mindful of this can help us honor our conscious intentions. My personal feeling is that it is counter-productive to "blame" people for unconscious racism, stereotype or prototype biases, but that as a society we do need to recognize and use this information to educate ourselves and our children, while also using this new understanding to advise non-prototypic leaders of strategies to enhance the perception of their effectiveness.

1. Paris, L.D., et al., Preferred leadership prototypes of male and female leaders in 27 countries. Journal of International Business Studies, 2009. 40(8): p. 1396-1405.
2. Cikara, M., et al., On the wrong side of the trolley track: neural correlates of relative social valuation. Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci.
3. Lankau, M.J. and B.G. Chung, A comparison of American and international prototypes of successful managers. Journal of Leadership Studies, 2009. 3(1): p. 7-18.
4. Rosette, A.S., G.J. Leonardelli, and K.W. Phillips, The White Standard: Racial Bias in Leader Categorization. Journal of Applied Psychology, 2008. 93(4): p. 758-777.
5. Cicero, L., A. Pierro, and D. van Knippenberg, Leadership and Uncertainty: How Role Ambiguity Affects the Relationship between Leader Group Prototypicality and Leadership Effectiveness. British Journal of Management, 2010. 21(2): p. 411-421.
6. Westen, D., et al., Neural bases of motivated reasoning: an FMRI study of emotional constraints on partisan political judgment in the 2004 U.S. Presidential election. J Cogn Neurosci, 2006. 18(11): p. 1947-58.
7. Welchman, A.E., et al., The quick and the dead: when reaction beats intention. Proc Biol Sci. 277(1688): p. 1667-74.