Stereotype Threat and Politics as a Circus

Chris at Stumbling and Mumbling has reported a study showing ‘stereotype threat‘, the phenomenon whereby a stereotype about oneself can affect one’s performance. I’ve come across this effect before, but it’s nice to see another corroboration. Chris also links this to the ‘Obama Effect’  – that apparently, black students did better in exams when Obama’s ascendancy was in the air than previously.

To my mind, this isn’t just a fiddly little finding by some scientists. This is a factual demonstration, in at least one respect, that the personal is political – or rather vice versa. What I mean is – let’s accept the data on the Obama effect: it seems that a certain section of the population will be educationally held back by a scarcity of figures from their group in prominent public roles (assuming that section is salient – i.e. this might affect racial groups but not people who can vs. people who can’t roll their tongues).

On this basis one could certainly argue that we should seek to ensure the presence of such people in prominent public roles – to have a ‘representative’ government, containing people of all different sorts. The default response to this sort of idea is to deplore it as contradicting meritocracy, the idea of selecting only the best candidates for any given job.

Now for a start that assumes that there’s no significant prejudice that affects how people from different groups are evaluated, which is AFAIK false. But also, it just ignores this ‘representational’ role of government. If a government is going to form itself and dominate the news all the time, it is placing itself in a position where it inevitably influences the minds of its citizens. Therefore, it has a duty, arguably, to take that influence into account and try to use it as best it can. Politics is a circus, a spectacle, not just in the derogatory sense.

Of course politicians are likely to be just as subject to this bias as anyone else. We certainly shouldn’t take this in any kind of ‘the people are sheep, they will follow wherever their enlightened masters lead’ direction. Everyone is a sheep. Or perhaps better, everyone is a child. Everyone is still in many respects acting like a child in relation to wider society – taking cues, accepting its messages as gospel (or else rejecting them just for the sake of it, like a toddler who’s just learnt the word ‘no’), defining ourselves based on how we think society (adverts, films, newspapers, etc.) defines us.

We may not like this, but there’s no point simply ignoring or denying it (nor just being rebellious for the sake of it). The independent self outside of society, unaffected by what others think, is either a fiction or the creation of a certain pattern of social influences.

What does this mean we should do? How should a society of children mutually defining each other operate? One obvious idea is to represent all the different sections of society, but how in detail does that work without tokenism, and can we go further? (I have a few related thoughts here)

Of course, another implication might be that Chris should consider the impact of putting gratuitous eye-candy in half his posts…

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