Revisiting the Obama Effect

Senator Kamala Harris may be the next role model to weaken stereotype threat.

Posted Aug 17, 2020

Congressional Pictorial Directory Public Domain
Sen. Harris is the first black woman and first Asian American person to be on a major party’s presidential ticket.
Source: Congressional Pictorial Directory Public Domain

On Aug. 11, 2020, democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden announced California Senator Kamala Harris as his running mate.  Senator Harris is the first black woman and first Asian American person to be on a major party’s presidential ticket. In a 2012 study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, researchers reported evidence that the effects of stereotype threat were lessened immediately after Barack Obama was elected president.

What the researchers deemed the “Obama Effect” may give insight into the significance of Senator Harris’s nomination.

Senators Harris is the daughter of immigrant parents. Her mother, Shyamala Gopalan, moved from India to California in 1958 and received a Ph.D. in Endocrinology at UC Berkeley. Her father, Donald J. Harris, immigrated from British Jamaica to California in 1963 and also earned his Ph.D. at UC Berkeley. Shyamala and Donald married in 1963, giving birth to Senator Harris in 1964 in Oakland, California.

Given Senator Harris’s Indian and Jamaican heritage, history is in the making with her vice-presidential nominee. She is the first African American, the first Indian American, and the third female to be picked as the vice-presidential nominee for a major party ticket. 

At the Girls Build Leadership Summit, Harris described the importance of role models in breaking negative stereotypes. She looked to her mother who was one of the first minority women to have a position as a scientist at UC Berkeley. Harris reminded the women at the conference that while being a role model for women in leadership can feel lonely, they are not alone. Her nomination stands as a shining example for other minority women and girls to pursue their dreams.

Kiana Bosman/Unsplash
Sen. Harris's nomination stands as a shining example for other minority women and girls to pursue their dreams.
Source: Kiana Bosman/Unsplash

Can something as simple as a nomination have any real-world impact on women and girls of color?  A study on the effect of PresIdent Obama’s election can help us understand the current possibilities.

Researchers David Marx, Sei Jin Ko, and Ray Friedman set out to explore the effects of Barack Obama’s presidential run on stereotype threat. Stereotype threat is “the concern a person has about confirming a negative stereotype about his or her social group. In evaluative testing situations, such as taking a challenging exam, this concern may lead them to perform worse than their abilities would suggest” (p. 953).

For role models to boost the academic performance of those who are negatively stereotyped, it's thought that the role model must be seen as competent and as a member of the ingroup such as sharing the same racial or gender membership. Also, individuals need to be aware of the role model’s success in areas negative stereotyping occurs. 

The article stated that,

Although Obama clearly embodied all three of these assumptions during the course of the presidential election, we argue that there are specific markers of Obama’s success that will be particularly powerful in boosting Black-Americans’ academic performance. Indeed, Obama may be considered a role model in general, and thus increase hope and inspiration. However, during those times when his stereotype-defying accomplishments are concrete and salient, his success may be capable of shielding stereotyped targets from the negative effects of stereotype threat. (p. 953)

The study included 84 Black-Americans and 388 White-Americans who were matched on age and English proficiency. They also controlled for education level to make certain that differences in ability were due to the salience of Obama’s achievements.

 Santi Vedri/Unsplash
Source: Santi Vedri/Unsplash

The researchers collected data four times, two when Obama’s success was salient, and two when it was less so. To engage stereotype threat, participants were asked to state their race and complete a verbal exam they were told would identify their intellectual strengths and weaknesses.

The researchers found that while scores for White-American participants were largely consistent across the four times, Black-American participants showed differences depending on whether Obama’s success was thought to be more concrete. For example, White-Americans who had not watched Obama’s Democratic National Convention speech scored significantly higher than Black-Americans who also had not watched.  For those who did watch the speech, Black-Americans scored similarly to White-Americans. While the study was only quasi-experimental and could not prove cause-and-effect, the researchers suggested that "The Obama Effect embodies the ability of Black-American role models to buffer Black-Americans academic performance from the negative effects of racial stereotypes..." (p. 956)

Harris has similar attributes of success that break negative stereotypes for women of color. While few minorities will have direct contact with Harris, it’s possible that when her political and leadership success is salient, women of color will experience an intellectual boost, similar to that hypothesized for Black-Americans looking to the example of Obama. Subtle reminders may be enough to affect behavior. For example, researchers have found that women score higher on math tests when the exams are administered by a woman.

Whether “The Obama Effect” will occur with Harris or in what capacity remains to be seen. One study found that African American participants who were simply asked to think about Obama before a verbal test did not score significantly different than those who were not prompted to think about Obama. 

This historic time is an opportunity to better understand stereotype threat and the impact of role models on women of color.