“Obama Effect” Shrinks Performance Gap

High-profile role models are one driver of improved academic performance for African Americans.
High-profile role models are one driver of improved academic performance for African Americans.

The presidential run of Barack Obama has made a strong positive impact on the test-taking achievement of African Americans, according to research by Vanderbilt Owen Graduate School of Management Professor Ray Friedman.

Documenting what Friedman and his co-authors call “the Obama Effect,” the study found the performance gap between black and white Americans in a series of online tests shrank dramatically during key moments of the 2008 presidential campaign, when Obama’s accomplishments garnered the most national attention. “Our results document compelling evidence of the power that real-world, in-group role models like Obama can have on members of their racial or ethnic community,” says Friedman, who is the Brownlee O. Currey Professor of Management.

In the study, tests were administered to a total of 472 participants using questions drawn from Graduate Record Exams (GREs) to assess reading comprehension, analogies and sentence completion. The tests took place at four distinct points over three months during the campaign: two when Obama’s success was less prominent (before his acceptance of the party nomination and the midpoint between the convention and election day) and two when his success garnered the most attention (immediately after his nomination speech and his win of the presidency in November).

The nationwide testing sample of 84 black Americans and 388 white Americans—a proportion equivalent to representation in the overall population—matched for age and education level. It revealed that white participants scored higher than their black peers at the two points in the campaign when Obama’s achievements were least visible.

During the height of the Obama media frenzy, though, the performance gap between black and white Americans was effectively eliminated. Black Americans who did not watch Obama’s nomination acceptance speech continued to lag behind their white peers, while those who did view the speech successfully closed the gap.

As part of the study, Friedman—along with David M. Marx of San Diego State University and Sei Jin Ko of Northwestern University—also examined whether Obama’s success reduced negative racial stereotypes. Participants were asked, for example, whether they were concerned that poor performance on the exam would be attributed to their race. The results indicate that blacks were concerned that they faced negative stereotypes about academic achievement whether Obama was prominent or not—but when Obama was prominent, they were able to overcome that concern and perform better on the test.

Other research has shown that such historical stereotypes are an underlying reason for lagging test-taking performance by black Americans, Friedman notes.

“Obama as a role model did not have an immediate impact on black Americans’ concerns about such stereotypes,” Friedman says. “However, our findings give us reason to believe that the influence of extraordinarily successful role models like Obama will help drive improved performance and, over the longer term, to dispel negative stereotypes about African Americans, bringing us closer to a ‘post-racial’ world.”

The researchers have submitted their study for review to The Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

Explore Story Topics