Young Economics.

Politics, Inequity, and Psychological Quirks

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The recent US presidential election featured a black man on the Democratic ticket and a white woman on the Republican ticket.  Now that a few months have passed, some psychological studies associated with this egalitarian election campaign are beginning to come out.

In this recent paper, authors Heflick and Goldenberg suggest that the McCain-Palin ticket may have been harmed by the objectification of Sarah Palin throughout the campaign.  A person is said to be objectified when “they are viewed as if their body is capable of representing them”; that is, when the focus is on the person’s physical appearance as opposed to other characteristics of her or his personhood.  Past research (cited in the paper) suggests that self-objectification lowers women’s self-assessment of their own worth and capability, and that women (but not men) tend to be judged as being less competent the more physically attractive they are.

In a random-assignment, questionnaire-based study of undergraduates, Heflick and Goldenberg find that both Palin and actress Angelina Jolie (as a comparison) are judged to be less competent by participants who were primed to focus on “this person’s appearance” than by participants who were primed to focus on “this person.”  Participants who were focused on Palin’s appearance were also less likely to express an intention to vote for John McCain.

Note that the study has nothing to do with judging women based on attractiveness or unattractiveness; both Palin and Jolie are widely considered to be attractive women.  The mere consideration of physical appearance, as opposed to other qualities, made a difference in how both women were judged by the study’s participants.  I have heard (though I have no references) that certain physical characteristics – especially height – are important for men who want to be taken seriously as competent leaders.  But I doubt that the mere consideration of physical appearance would cause people to regard a man as less competent.  I could be wrong about that, though.  It would also be interesting to see whether or not the effect is the same for women who are not generally considered to be sexually attractive, i.e. Hillary Clinton or Margaret Thatcher.

Two other studies ask whether or not the opportunity to vote for Barack Obama made people less likely to support “policies designed to address racial inequality.”  They find that participants who expressed an intention to vote for Barack Obama subsequently showed greater favoritism toward white people in simulated hiring decisions and games involving the allocation of funding across communities.  Participants also expressed less support for social policies designed to alleviate racial inequality after the election than they had before.

It is possible that these results reflect some calculation on the part of the participants: “We now have a black president, so policies to address racial inequality are no longer as important as they may have been in the past.”  I think they also reflect the fact that people tend to make psychological trade-offs.  Particularly in the hiring decision and funding allocation games, the effect is probably similar to the finding, reported in the New York Times a few weeks ago, that people are more likely to order fatty French fries from a menu that includes salad than from a menu that has no healthful option. The mere presence of a ‘good option’ – for instance, the healthful salad or the vote for Obama – makes people comfortable taking actions in the other direction – eating the bad food or opposing the policies to address racial inequality.

These kinds of things are interesting, but it’s not clear how much they affect elections or policy outcomes.  I suspect that the psychological predisposition identified in the Sarah Palin study is the most important of these findings, since the physical appearance of female politicians gets a lot of media attention.  (See this, for instance.)  If that focus does lower voters’ views of the candidates’ competence in a way that is not, on average, overcome by voters’ rational consideration of the candidates, then it could be a real obstacle.


Written by Alex

May 19, 2009 at 11:12 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Tagged with , ,

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