During his presidential campaign, Barack Obama promised change. According to a recent study, some change might have come overnight.
A team of researchers from three universities, including one from Northwestern, discovered what they call the “Obama Effect” – the elimination of a performance gap between black and white Americans in an academic test – in the days following the Democratic National Convention and the presidential election.
Sei Jin Ko, a visiting professor in management and organizations at NU’s Kellogg School of Management, met David Marx, a psychology professor at San Diego State University, last year at a conference. Both specialize in the field of stereotyping and prejudice. The pair set out to find the effect Barack Obama might have as a role model for black Americans.
Marx headed the study, which administered an academic test to 84 black and 388 white Americans, proportionate to the racial percentages in the United States, between the ages of 18 and 63. The 20-question test was given in four time periods in 2008; two non-salient times – one week before the National Convention and one month before the election – and two salient times – the day following the National Convention and the day after the election.
“We found that in non-salient times, African-Americans performed significantly worse than white Americans on the test,” Ko said. “But during the salient times, we found that the gap was completely erased.”
Minorities may not perform as well because they feel they are intellectually inferior, Ko said.
“In some testing situations, they experience a ‘stereotype threat’ and perform poorly,” she said. “It’s not that they don’t have the ability to do well, but they feel that if they don’t do well, they will perpetuate the negative stereotype and in turn, this worry makes them do worse.”
On the initial test last summer, whites scored an average of 12 out of 20 questions correct compared to 8.5 correct answers for blacks. But on the tests administered immediately after Obama’s nomination acceptance speech and after his election victory, black performance improved, eliminating the performance gap, Marx said.
Still, Gabriel Fuentes, a counselor at George Washington High School in Chicago, said he has not seen any change in the academic progress of his Hispanic and black students.
“No one has come into my office and said they wanted to go to college because of Barack Obama,” Fuentes said. “Test scores and the number of students applying to college among minority students has remained stagnant for as long as I can remember.”
But for Ko, a positive minority role model like Obama changes everything.
“When you have a role model that is successful in a domain like academics, then that role model is clearly able to buffer the negative stereotype,” Ko said.
Marx has submitted the study to the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology for peer review. In the meantime, the professors are pursuing other research in this area including the effect that female role models have on the performance of women.
“We are currently studying how female role models may help women overcome the negative stereotypes that may have hindered them from performing at their best in certain academic domains like math and engineering,” Marx said.
Ko hopes the “Obama Effect” will inspire ordinary people to become role models.
“Role models need not be just famous. They could be professors in classrooms or parents in homes across the country,” she said. “It’s such a simple thing that can really have a huge effect. We could probably erase that performance gap once and for all.”
Marx said the “Obama Effect” may be one reason why NU received a 21 percent increase in applications from black students this year.
“It certainly sounds plausible,” Marx said. “Obama is really getting a lot of people excited and I could see how that could translate into more minority students applying to schools.”