Are You Under the Influence of Implicit Attitudes?

Your opinion of Obama may have little to do with what he's actually saying.

Posted Feb 08, 2012

The first televised Presidential debate was held some fifty years ago between a young senator from Massachusetts, John F. Kennedy, and the sitting Vice President, Richard M. Nixon. The debate was a turning point in the presidential campaign, giving an immediate boost to the electoral prospects of Senator Kennedy. Reports at the time were that most people who watched the debate thought Kennedy was a clear winner, but those who had listened on the radio gave the nod to Nixon.

Days after winning the election, Kennedy commented about the transformative role of television in electoral politics, saying "It was the TV more than anything else that turned the tide." What sunk Nixon in the televised debate was not his position on the issues of the day, but his weak and pale appearance. Still recuperating from a recent hospital stay due to a knee infection, Nixon looked weak and exhausted—"better suited for going to a funeral, perhaps his own, than to a debate" in the words of journalist and author David Halberstam. Nixon recognized that he was not telegenic, in part because of his tendency to show a "5PM shadow" soon after shaving. A few weeks after the debate, Nixon was to quip to television anchor Walter Cronkite, "I can shave within thirty seconds before I go on television and still have a beard. . . " By contrast, Kennedy looked fit, well-tanned, calm, vigorous, and yes, clean shaven.

The Kennedy-Nixon debate highlights the importance of subtle cues, such as physical features, in determining people's attitudes toward political candidates and others who seek to influence them, such as spokespersons for commercial products. Physical features suggestive of race or ethnicity can also activate underlying racial attitudes, as we discovered in a study we conducted during the 2008 Presidential election. We wanted to see how implicit attitudes of college students toward candidate Barack Obama would be influenced by doctoring photographs of him to make his skin-tone appear either lighter or darker as compared to an original photograph. We used a version of the Implicit Association Test, a widely used method for measuring automatic or implicit attitudes, such as underlying racial attitudes or biases.

In our experiment, college students were instructed to categorize positive and negative words, as well as images of Mr. Obama, by pressing particular keys on a computer. Images of Obama were paired with the positive word category in some trials and with the negative word category in others. We analyzed reaction times for these sorting tasks to see if they differed when Mr. Obama's image was paired with the positive response category than with the negative category. Faster reaction times when images of Obama were paired with the positive response category indicates a favorable implicit bias toward the stimulus object (in this case, Mr. Obama), whereas slower reaction times indicates an unfavorable bias. We also measured explicit attitudes—how students said they felt about Mr. Obama.

Not surprisingly, we found that self-identified liberal students showed more positive explicit attitudes toward Obama than their more conservative counterparts. Liberal students also showed a slight positive implicit bias toward Mr. Obama overall, whereas conservative students showed a slight negative bias. We also showed that darkening Mr. Obama's skin tone in the target photos had a marked negative effect on implicit responses, but only for the group of students who endorsed a conservative political ideology. No significant differences between conservative and liberal students in implicit responses turned up when we presented the lighter images of Mr. Obama. However, when we darkened Mr. Obama's skin tone, we found conservative students showing a much more pronounced negative bias.

Our findings were published in the journal Psychology & Marketing. Our results showed that by merely tweaking the skin-tone coloring of a prominent African-American political candidate, we were able to influence the implicit attitudes of students who held conservative political beliefs.

For beginning students of psychology, the lesson we can draw is that our automatic responses to people may be based more on their physical features than the content of their character. Although we may think of ourselves as free of prejudices based on skin color, our behavior may belie that belief. We should also recognize that variations in physical cues such as skin tone coloring may have greater effects on implicit attitudes of some groups than others. The question for further investigation is to determine how such implicit racial attitudes affect behavior, such as voting behavior and the kinds of everyday interactions we have with people of different ethnic or racial backgrounds.

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Source: Nevid, J. S. & McClelland, N. (2010). Measurement of implicit and explicit attitudes toward Barack Obama. Psychology & Marketing, 27, 989-1000.