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The Candidate, the Preacher and the Unconscious Mind

By Shankar Vedantam
Monday, May 5, 2008

On the eve of crucial presidential primaries in Indiana and North Carolina, Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) has found himself dogged by questions about his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. As the Democratic front-runner's popularity has suffered after public statements by Wright about race relations in America, Obama supporters have been at a loss to understand why Wright's views are being linked to their candidate, when Obama has explicitly told voters that Wright does not speak for him.

Social psychologist Michelle Hebl of Rice University once conducted an interesting experiment that helps explain the phenomenon. Hebl had volunteers evaluate a mock job applicant. Some volunteers saw the applicant sitting in a waiting room next to an overweight person, while others saw the applicant in the waiting room sitting next to a person of average weight. A variety of experiments have shown that overweight people suffer from discrimination; what Hebl wanted to find out was whether strangers in the vicinity of overweight people would share in such approbation.

Remarkably, Hebl found that volunteers rated job applicants more negatively when they had been seen seated next to an overweight person than when they were seen seated next to an average weight person. The volunteers had no idea that they were showing not only a prejudice against fat people but also a bias against people who were merely in proximity to overweight people.

The experiment tells us something about the Obama-Wright controversy. The presidential candidate may have made it clear that the minister does not speak for him, but every time Wright's words are replayed on talk radio and cable TV, they automatically retrieve mental associations in many voters' minds with Obama. Hebl similarly found her volunteers unconsciously made associations even after being explicitly told there was no connection between the job applicants in the waiting room.

Obama is not the only politician whose image is shaped by voters' associations. Politicians, in fact, take care to shape our associations of them: Ronald Reagan draped himself in the American flag at every public opportunity. President Bush landed on a warship in a flight suit, helmet under one arm, to make his "Mission Accomplished" speech about the Iraq war. Then-New York Gov. Eliot L. Spitzer and Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) had their wives stand by as they confessed sexual indiscretions.

The reason pols do these things, of course, is that Reagan wanted us to link him with patriotism, Bush with military success, Spitzer and Vitter with being lovable husbands. Because associations often operate outside conscious awareness, politicians can succeed in making them stick, even when we have evidence the associations are false.

Obama may find it especially hard to shake the associations that white voters have formed between him and Wright because both men are black. Social psychologist David Hamilton at the University of California said this is because of a phenomenon known as the "outgroup homogeneity effect" -- on average, people tend to feel that those from other ethnic, cultural and political groups are quite similar to one another, whereas they know that people from their own groups are quite varied.

To break the mental associations that white voters have between him and Wright, in other words, Obama will probably have to work much harder than if politician and preacher were also white.

This also explains why black voters seem to have little trouble distinguishing Obama's views from Wright's views -- people rarely have trouble seeing that people from their own groups can have a wide range of views.

Mental associations work in positive and negative directions: Experiments show, for example, that men and women seen in the company of beautiful partners are perceived as being more attractive than when they are seen in plainer company.

But there is some evidence our minds are especially attuned to negative associations: At Arizona State University, for example, social psychologist Steven Neuberg once found that heterosexual men seen in the company of gay men had some of the stigma attached to homosexuality rub off on them. The same holds for other prejudices -- social approbation seems to be directed not only at the victims of prejudice but also at those seen in their company.

Neuberg believes that these biases arise because we often see similar people in one another's company. If you see two men in suits talking to each other and you know one of them is a lawyer, it is plausible to think the second person is a lawyer, too. Prejudice follows similar mental heuristics, or shortcuts.

Hebl argues that the more Obama can get people to think about the Wright issue in a deliberate and conscious manner, the more likely he will be able to divorce himself from Wright -- many mental associations are powerful precisely because they operate unconsciously.

It won't be easy, however -- and not just because Obama's opponents are doing everything they can to keep the association alive. "I would argue people will continue to link Wright with Obama," Hebl said. "Based on my research and based on my findings, you can't unring a bell."

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