Put a group of people together at a party and observe how they behave. Differently than when they are alone? Differently than when they are with family? What if they’re in a stadium instead of at a party? What if they’re all men?
The field of social psychology has long been focused on how social environments affect the way people behave. But social psychologists are people, too, and as the United States has become increasingly politically polarized, they have grown increasingly interested in examining what drives these sharp divides: red states vs. blue states; pro-Iraq war vs. anti-Iraq war; pro-same-sex marriage vs. anti-same-sex marriage. And they have begun to study political behavior using such specialized tools as sophisticated psychological tests and brain scans.
For their study, Nosek, Banaji and social psychologist Erik Thompson culled self-acknowledged views about blacks from nearly 130,000 whites, who volunteered online to participate in a widely used test of racial bias that measures the speed of people’s associations between black or white faces and positive or negative words. The researchers examined correlations between explicit and implicit attitudes and voting behavior in all 435 congressional districts.
The analysis found that substantial majorities of Americans, liberals and conservatives, found it more difficult to associate black faces with positive concepts than white faces—evidence of implicit bias. But districts that registered higher levels of bias systematically produced more votes for Bush.
“Obviously, such research does not speak at all to the question of the prejudice level of the president,” said Banaji, “but it does show that George W. Bush is appealing as a leader to those Americans who harbor greater anti-black prejudice.”
Vincent Hutchings, a political scientist at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, said the results matched his own findings in a study he conducted ahead of the 2000 presidential election: Volunteers shown visual images of blacks in contexts that implied they were getting welfare benefits were far more receptive to Republican political ads decrying government waste than volunteers shown ads with the same message but without images of black people.
Jon Krosnick, a psychologist and political scientist at Stanford University, who independently assessed the studies, said it remains to be seen how significant the correlation is between racial bias and political affiliation.
For example, he said, the study could not tell whether racial bias was a better predictor of voting preference than, say, policy preferences on gun control or abortion. But while those issues would be addressed in subsequent studies—Krosnick plans to get random groups of future voters to take the psychological tests and discuss their policy preferences—he said the basic correlation was not in doubt.
“If anyone in Washington is skeptical about these findings, they are in denial,” he said. “We have 50 years of evidence that racial prejudice predicts voting. Republicans are supported by whites with prejudice against blacks. If people say, ‘This takes me aback,’ they are ignoring a huge volume of research.”