Despite anecdotal reports in the media of an “Obama effect” on African-American student achievement, black students primed to think about Barack Obama prior to taking a standardized test performed no better than white students or black students in a control group. The research was conducted by Joshua Aronson, professor of applied psychology at New York University’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development, two of his students, Sheana Jannone and Tanisha Johnson-Campbell, and Matthew McGlone, associate professor in the Department of Communications Studies at the University of Texas. Supported by the National Science Foundation and the Spencer Foundation, the findings will appear in the July issue of the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

Recent media reports have speculated that Barack Obama’s stereotype-defying success is having a positive impact on African-American students’ academic performance. A quasi-experiment performed last year by researchers at Vanderbilt University found that Obama had a profound effect on the exam performance of a sample of black test-takers, effectively eliminating the black-white test score gap in the days following Obama’s victory in November. Researchers theorized that Obama serves as a salient role-model for students, helping to close the gap between white and black students’ achievement by disconfirming the widespread image of blacks as unintelligent.

Aronson and his colleagues’ study adds to the body of work on “stereotype threat,” a performance-debilitating anxiety about conforming to stereotypes individuals believe others have of them when taking standardized tests. Stanford University professor (and Columbia University provost-designate) Claude Steele and Aronson introduced the concept in 1995.

Research has shown that the presence of stereotype threat—such as the stereotype that women perform poorly in math—can undermine the performance of even the most talented students. Laboratory research has demonstrated that deficits in performance caused by stereotype threat can be mitigated by cueing test-takers to threat-reducing thoughts—such as their identities as students at selective colleges, or having them think about stereotype-defying role models. It was this latter finding that served as the theoretical basis of the Obama effect.

Aronson and colleagues tested the hypothesis of the “Obama effect” in a more rigorous way than the first Obama effect study reported in January. Specifically, the test functioned by priming—or calling to mind—the positive attributes of Barack Obama among a random sample of male and female students prior to administering a verbal section of the Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT). The students were undergraduates participating in a residential summer program for medical school aspirants. The test was administered over the summer of 2008, immediately after Obama clinched the Democratic nomination for president, which was the same time period when the first Obama effect study had found a narrowing of the test score gap.

The researchers asked black and white undergraduate students to take the verbal MCAT. Prior to the test, the participants completed one of three short political surveys designed to prime them to think about either Barack Obama or John McCain, or neither of the two. A control group was administered the same exam without the political survey. In this same context in a previous study, Aronson had found he could significantly boost black students’ test scores by convincing students that the test was not indicative of their innate mental abilities—a reliable stereotype threat-reduction strategy.

But in the current study the researchers found no such benefit from experimentally focusing students on Obama’s success; the white students outperformed black students on the test, even with the Obama cue. After taking into account students’ SAT scores and the degree to which students thought positively about Obama, the researchers found no indication of an Obama effect on performance.

These results suggest that “claims about an Obama effect are probably exaggerated, most likely due to biases in the method and sample used in the much discussed first Obama effect study,” says Aronson. “There is no doubt in my mind that Obama inspires great hope and optimism and indeed will lead some students to take academics more seriously. But to expect the success of one highly visible African American to eliminate the black-white gap as though with a magic wand, is to misunderstand the roots of the black-white gap, which is only in small part due to psychological forces like stereotype threat. As much as I believe in the power of role models, I suspect that the greatest contribution Obama will make to narrowing the achievement gap will be his policies, not his persona.”

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