By: Erica Zaiser
Since the media is already beginning to review the last US presidential election in order to predict the next one, I thought it would be a good time to discuss a recent article in Political Psychology about the 2008 election. In their pre-election study, the researchers found that priming images of the confederate flag decreased white voters willingness to vote for Obama. Even when assessing a hypothetical black candidate, white participants evaluated the candidate more negatively after being exposed to the confederate flag. However, this wasn’t just an increase in negative attitudes in general, because there was no effect on attitudes towards white candidates.
This isn’t particularly surprising when you think about it. As the authors explain, by priming the confederate flag, negative attitudes towards blacks are more accessible. However, these studies are good examples of how something somewhat obvious for psychologists in the lab is still striking when you think about the ramifications it can have in the “real world”. Especially when you realize that the results were controlling for political orientation and personal racial attitudes. So it wasn’t that people who already held strong racist views were reminded of their own beliefs; instead, people exposed to the image accessed a set of racist cultural beliefs that the flag represents, regardless of their personal attitudes towards race or politics.
I wanted to write about this because it’s interesting and important to be aware of. I am also worried that psychologists shouldn’t draw too much attention to this effect or we are going to see this type of priming used (or used more) on the campaign trail.