The Hillary Clinton effect – how role models work for some people but not others

The benefits, or not, of reading about Ms Clinton 

Fear of prejudice can adversely affect people’s performance. For example, female participants reminded of the stereotype that women are innately inferior at maths compared to men, subsequently perform sub-optimally at a maths task, especially in the company of men. This effect, known as stereotype threat, occurs at least in part because of the anxiety that one’s own poor performance will be used by the ignorant to bolster their prejudicial beliefs.

An antidote to stereotype threat is to remind people of high achieving members of their in-group. For example, reminding Black Americans of President Obama’s success has been shown to improve their subsequent IQ test performance. Psychologists think this ‘Obama effect’ occurs because the role-model’s salient success takes away the burden people feel of having to represent their group.

A new study by Cheryl Taylor and colleagues has built on this literature by showing that the stereotype-busting effect of a role-model only occurs if that role-model’s success is perceived as due to their own innate ability and effort. If the role-model is considered to have been lucky then their stereotype-busting power is lost. Taylor’s team call this the Hillary Clinton effect.

Dozens of female undergrads rated the extent to which various successful women deserved their success, including Hillary Clinton, Paris Hilton and Oprah Winfrey. Pilot work had already established that Hillary Clinton tends to divide opinion and that was replicated here. Several months later these same female undergrads were recruited for what they thought was a separate study. Their main task was to complete a maths test. Beforehand, however, some of them were reminded of the ‘women are poor at maths’ stereotype. And within that stereotype-reminded group, before the maths test, half were asked to read a factual account of Hillary Clinton’s life, followed by questions on it, whilst the remainder read about a successful British company (this was intended to be innocuous, just to control for the effect of completing a reading comprehension task). The key question was whether reading about Hillary Clinton would have a protective effect or not.

The classic stereotype effect was replicated. Women reminded of the sexist stereotype (and who read about a successful British company) answered 50.7 per cent of attempted items correctly compared with a success rate of 59.3 per cent achieved by women who just took the test without the stereotype reminder (there was no difference in the number of items attempted). What about the participants who read about Hillary Clinton? It depended. For the women who’d earlier said they judged Clinton’s success to be deserved and due to her abilities, reading about her offered protection: they scored 62.3 per cent correct. By contrast, for the women who judged Clinton’s success as down to luck and nepotism, she offered no protection: they scored just 48.9 per cent correct.

‘Reading a factual biography of Hillary Clinton alleviated the performance deficits associated with mathematics stereotype threat for some women, but not for others,’ the researchers said. Now more research is needed to explore this effect. For example, the perceived ‘likeability’, or many other characteristics of the role model, could be the key factor explaining their protective value, rather than the deservingness of their success. In the meantime, Taylor and her colleagues said the stereotype-busting effects of role-models could be enhanced and preserved by ensuring people are aware of the stable and internal causes of the role-models’ successes.

ResearchBlogging.orgTaylor, C., Lord, C., McIntyre, R., and Paulson, R. (2011). The Hillary Clinton effect: When the same role model inspires or fails to inspire improved performance under stereotype threat. Group Processes and Intergroup Relations DOI: 10.1177/1368430210382680