Barack Obama vs. Genetic Determinism

By Sean Carroll | January 24, 2009 7:35 pm

My theory is that Barack Obama, among his various superpowers, has the ability to reach out to groups of people across the world and subtly re-arrange their DNA. How else are we to explain this?

In the study made public on Thursday, Dr. Friedman and his colleagues compiled a brief test, drawing 20 questions from the verbal sections of the Graduate Record Exam, and administering it four times to about 120 white and black test-takers during last year’s presidential campaign.

In total, 472 Americans — 84 blacks and 388 whites — took the exam. Both white and black test-takers ranged in age from 18 to 63, and their educational attainment ranged from high school dropout to Ph.D.

On the initial test last summer, whites on average correctly answered about 12 of 20 questions, compared with about 8.5 correct answers for blacks, Dr. Friedman said. But on the tests administered immediately after Mr. Obama’s nomination acceptance speech, and just after his election victory, black performance improved, rendering the white-black gap “statistically nonsignificant,” he said.

The study hasn’t yet been published (or accepted), and doesn’t seem to be online; here is the press release.

Via DougJ at Balloon Juice, who says everything that needs to be said. Including that this is no surprise at all, at least to people who recognize the phrase “stereotype threat.” Studies have shown that simply reminding women or minorities that they are women or minorities causes them to do statistically worse on tests involving subjects that they are, stereotypically, supposed to be bad at.

One is almost tempted to conclude that scores on standardized tests might be influenced by factors other than one’s genetic background. Who could have guessed?

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Humanity, Science
  • jonm

    Wouldn’t one expect scores on standardized tests to be influenced by both one’s genetic background and other factors?

  • Retired

    Beliefs in self can alter determination, confidence and motivation as well as other factors that will cause an upturn in result.

    Let us see if a non-(100%)white president will show all kinds of Americans that if they take some responsibility and stick to a goal, with multiple attempts, they achieve it.

    I would be interested in repetition of this experiment and some similar.

  • somebody

    This is one of the few things in which I have loved your political corrrectness….

  • curious scott

    All sorts of interesting conjunctures follow if you view Obama’s influence on the environment as an external phenotype. See “European evolutionary biologists rally behind Richard Dawkins’ Extended Phenotype”

  • Tim

    the increase in scores is temporary right? what happens a day or two or a week after the test is administered?

    so 1. why doesn’t the increase in scores persist?
    2. what are whites looking up to or inspired by that causes their scores to be consistently higher?
    3. this is unfair study because you are creating an impetus for the AA community but not the white community. create an impetus for the white students AND AA community and then measure the test scores.

    4. no doubt labels affect our performance assuming you think being called a minority is a negative connotation. does study assumes that but we don’t know if it is true or not.
    so if labels are so bad why not get rid of affirmative action ???????????

  • Omar

    “Blink”, the book explains such phenomena in great detail. Events like these have to do with how an individual is primed.

  • bad Jim

    There are all sorts of old jokes about how X moving from place A to place B raised the average IQ of both places. This, however, is hard evidence that electing Obama raised the average IQ of the entire country!

    (OTOH, the election and re-election of Bush probably dropped the national IQ by depressing half the country. I know I started drinking more,.)

  • Eyes Squared

    Expected Fox news headline. “Has Barack Obama made black people smarter?”

    When Obama proved that AA are not disadvantaged because of their DNA, the test takers have removed their personal expectations of decreased aptitude and performed to their abilities which are equivalent to everyone else when education is statistically removed. The score increase should sustain as long as the stereotype of ignorance is not accepted by the test taker. The results have to do with stereotypes and their harm, the subject aligning with the stereotype causes harm. If you are told you are inferior, independent of your ability, your performance will decrease.

    As far as removing labels that would only remove the ability to study it in the future… AND as a white male, affirmative action will help me when I become a minority in 2020. Please don’t be so shortsighted… remember that the other side of the coin exists.

  • XiXiDu
  • ts

    The fact that Obama is regarded as a black person exemplifies the silly notion of race in this country. He is one of those mixed people. Why do white folks exclude those people from their own category when they may share half as much racial background? That thought of pure vs non-pure blood has always disgusted me.

    We will see if Obama’s “blackness” has such a profound effect on black students’ real exam performance then. Hopefully there will be more black students in hard science; I’ve seen just one in more than 10 years in physics. They are virtually nonexistent. And people didn’t appear o be concerned about it, as far as I could tell. It’s such a silly claim that one Obama would erase a nagging disparity that has existed for years!

  • Ali

    Of course the verbal test is more affected by “English” knowledge than other things like genetic factors! It is not a standardized overall intelligence test!

  • ollie

    This does surprise me, as I’ve always operated under the assumption that African Americans did worse on such exams due to their not having equal access to equal educational opportunities.

    I suppose this test shows that attitude means more than just about anything else, provided this study holds up to rigorous scrutiny.

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  • CarlZ

    Presumably, this is closely related to the previously discovered effect that black Americans do better on IQ tests if participants are *not* told beforehand that it’s a test of “intelligence”. Telling people — of any race — what is being tested primes them to perform up (or down) to preconceived expectations.

    I’d not be surprised to discover that the well-known decline in math performance by girls (in US schools, at least) is also related — enough years of being told that “Girls can’t do math/science/engineering” would get to most (although not my wife, an EE grad from MIT).

    Many black kids get similar pressure from peers telling them that they aren’t acting “black enough”. Let’s hope that Barack’s achievement becomes the new standard for “black enough” that impressionable kids are subjected to.

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  • CarlZ

    @ts: Sadly, it’s not just an American attitude. Lewis Hamilton, the Formula 1 motor racing world champion, has a mixed racial/cultural background similar to Obama’s, and the press in his native Britain routinely refer to him as black, and his achievement as “the first black F1 champion” is being touted as a Jackie Robinson-like moment for an overwhelmingly white sport.

    Even more sadly, race may be a fiction (scientifically speaking) but racism is not. Hamilton was subjected to racist chanting at the Spanish Grand Prix (yes, it’s especially moronic on the part of those people — I have to wonder if they were cheering his “white half” while booing his “black half”) and black soccer players are routinely abused in some of the more backward parts of Europe. (And if you’re from one of those parts of Europe and feeling offended by that label: tough. Try not being so backward.)

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  • domainranger

    This is a natural experiment demonstrating the converse of “stereotype threat,” an important concept in educational psychology for at least 10 years, with enough evidence now to support a meta-analysis:

    Nguyen HH, Ryan AM. J Appl Psychol. 2008 Nov;93(6):1314-34. 2: Does stereotype threat affect test performance of minorities and women? A meta-analysis of experimental evidence.

    Would like to see more experiments on “stereotype ablation.”

  • Retired

    Ollie, et al
    On “not having access to equal education”- often a false premise.
    Many cities/states are spending amazing money to make up for inequities of student preparation and assist them in focus and behavior management.
    I worked as a certified staff member for 36+ years in a low income, high poverty (82%) school.
    The huge differences that showed in testing results and readiness for further education between those students and middle income students centered around social readiness and vocabulary/language level of understanding.

    Those poor families that had the time, habit and energy to shape their children’s readiness to listen for a few minutes and participate in groups without causing behavior problems enjoy the higher achieving students.

    Lots of money is spent on needed programs that are not as highly profiled in middle class schools including: a larger % of Special ed, language development, truancy and behavior issues. (I am not saying they are only in those schools, but larger funding is necessary for hte issues students bring to school.)

    In this discussion of a President Obama effect, there would be a wonderful difference if children felt a need to take responsibility for learning and an okay to act as a successful student. Kids are teased for acting white in ghetto schools if they start a road to success.

  • Peter Coles

    What strikes me with this sort of test is how pointless they are from a scientific view (because, whatever the results are, they mean precisely nothing). On the other hand, it’s blindingly obvious they can be easily used by the scientifically illiterate (which, unfortunately, is most people) to support their prejudices. So why do people carry on with this worthless pseudoscience?

    And even being a scientist doesn’t make on immune from this sort of nonsense. I went to a lecture years ago by Sir Fred Hoyle. In the middle of it he remarked that it was a scientific fact that black people had poor hand-eye coordination, which is why there were so few black tennis players.

    This was in the same year that West Indies Cricket team thrashed England 5-0 in a series of 5 matches.

    (For those of you not aware of Cricket, it’s like an interesting version of baseball.)

  • Confused

    Why is it that when somebody tells me I can’t do something I get more defiant, competitive and focused, which usually improves my performance? I am so confused.

  • JoAnne

    A similar study with similar conclusions was performed a couple years ago with female subjects and a GRE-like Math exam. Results are here:

  • Cas

    Basically, the test is a reflection of human nature. Our confidence can be easily changed by external force, unless we know who we are and what we can or cannot do. Let go our ego, work on our weaknesses, things will start changing.

  • Ralph

    People (especially independent-minded Americans) generally don’t care about these kinds of tests, since they are anonymous and the results have no bearing on the individual’s life. The black people who took this test after inauguration took it with a sense of collective pride that encouraged them to score better. Simple.
    This bias also shows up on all kinds of standardized tests, such as the ones that supposedly show Americans lagging so much in international educational achievement.

  • Peter Coles

    Of course there could be an effect on collective pride like that discussed above, but it seems more likely to me that the differences from test to test are just due to sampling fluctuations. The samples are very small, especially in the sample representing black people which, if only 84 were involved in the entire exercise, involved only 21 people each time. You would need to look very carefully at the statistics, but I’d take a lot of convincing that the set that gave the lower score wasn’t just a statistical fluctuation.

  • Count Iblis

    There are undeniable genetic differences between blacks and whites. E.g., how many whites have ever run the 100 meters in under ten seconds? How many top black swimmers are there?

  • maja

    “Praise a fool and you may make him worthy”

  • Ben

    The biggest mistake here: the fact that finding is “statistically nonsignificant” doesn’t tell you much at all. If your sample is small, you’ll often fail to get statistical significance even if the true gap is large. Failure to reject the null hypothesis doesn’t prove it, especially in a study with a small sample size. Also, it’s my understanding that releasing the results of a study prior to peer review is generally regarded as a red flag.

    1. Note that they give the scores pre-Obama, but not post-Obama. So there was still a gap, but perhaps only at a 90% significance level rather than a 95% level.
    2. Sample size of students is tiny, as you noted.
    3. The number of questions is very small.
    4. Self-selection effects (it’s an internet study, not a representative sample).
    5. Different times of year may catch students in or out of school, different people who may have heard about the study (including from the experimenters, who may have sent flyers or emails to different places), etc.

    The real test is whether the CHANGE in the gap is statistically significant.

  • Peter Coles


    The real question is whether anything at all in this study is statistically significant. One can’t tell whether the mean score of 8.5 on a sample of 20-ish is significantly different from a mean score of 12 unless one knows the distribution of the scores.

    So I’d also like to know why a press release has been circulated while the data are not available for proper scrutiny?

    This sort of crap happens all the time I’m afraid, and it definitely brings science into disrepute.



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  • lemuel pitkin

    There are undeniable genetic differences between blacks and whites. E.g., how many whites have ever run the 100 meters in under ten seconds? How many top black swimmers are there?

    Good point! Along the smae lines, have you ever noticed how interesting it is that the British Empire included so many different groups with a genetic predisposition for playing cricket?

  • Peter Coles

    It’s interesting to learn that there is a gene for running the 100 metres. I always thought you had to train. I wonder if there is also a gene for being unable to see a stupid argument?

  • Low Math, Meekly Interacting

    Standardized tests don’t measure anything, except the ability to take standardized tests, right? That’s why we dismiss SAT scores and IQ scores that show racial disparities out-of-hand, because they’re inherently culturally biased (for myriad reasons not addressed by this study’s hypothesis). Right? We don’t even know what g is, or if it exists, so the idea that it can be measured is evidentially groundless. RIGHT?

    C’mon liberals. We can’t have it both ways. We shouldn’t get a free pass to trumpet results like this, when in the next breath we crap all over the same tests when they generate results we don’t like. Either these tests are worthless, or they’re not. Either they’re intrinsically culturally biased, or they’re not. Either we know what intelligence is, or we don’t. We don’t get to claim knowledge we don’t have when the utilization of that “knowledge” fits a pre-conceived notion. That’s the epitome of unscientific behavior. If it makes you happy, fine, say it makes you happy. No problem with that. But why even suggest it means anything remotely scientific? You just open the point up to ridicule by the bigots, and rightly so, which helps no one.

  • Ja Muller

    Low Math, Meekly Interacting said
    “Either these tests are worthless, or they’re not.”

    Ummm, no. The tests are clearly not worthless. If one person got something like 140 and another got an 80 saying the person with a 140 is more intelligent regardless of race should not be controversial. That said they obviously have problems and the point that people who like this finding should not be trumpeting the results is valid since it was not a huge study and the next one could show the exact opposite.

  • Count Iblis

    It’s interesting to learn that there is a gene for running the 100 metres. I always thought you had to train. I wonder if there is also a gene for being unable to see a stupid argument?

    I think it is very plausible to assume that there are genes that regulate the type of muscle fibers you have which determine whether you are better suited for long distance running compared to the sprint.

    There may be genes for being unable to see stupid arguments, as well as genes that make you dismiss any valid arguments that undermine your ideology out of hand.

  • lemuel pitkin

    I think it is very plausible to assume

    Oh, is this how you do science?

  • Peter Coles

    Count Iblis

    Right. Your statement has gone from “undeniable” to “very plausible”. Give it another day and it will be “bogus”.

    Of course there are genetic differences between races. That’s why there are races. But when it comes to sport there are surely huge social and peer pressures determining which sports different people take up. Sprinting offers many black role models which must be a factor.

    There are very few black golfers and I’ve never played bridge against a black opponent. Are those genetic too?


  • Low Math, Meekly Interacting

    These tests are, at the very least, worthless for the purposes of measuring the genetic underpinnings of “intelligence”, of which we have neither an adequate definition, nor any plausible candidate alleles, haplotypes, genotypes, or epigenotypes. Both the existence of “g” and its putative heritable components are, at this stage, hypothetical. Even if they exist, these tests do not serve as an adequate probe, which has already been established, especially in the minds of those investigators whose politics lean left. That’s our background. Hence, such tests have precisely zero to say about genetic determinism, either pro or con, and to suggest they do is equally wrong for either hypothesis. The fact that yet another test shows environmental components to performance (a point even the determinists allow, so this post appears to attack something of a straw-man) may be interesting, but tells us precisely zero about heritable factors.

    What we know about these tests is that there’s a correlation between high performance and comparable performance for a particular set of other tasks, such as other kinds of tests in an academic setting. That’s it. That anxiety can influence this performance isn’t a terribly remarkable finding, nor is it remarkable that members of different ethnic groups may be made anxious in ways particular to their group, given that their environment can impinge on them in particular ways. If this study, or any that preceded it, have any validity or statistical power, that’s what they’ve discovered. The rest we can only properly be agnostic about.

  • Senior in High School babbyy :)

    okay. so everyone has different levels of knowledge i for one believe that tests to judge whether blacks do better than whites is racial and not very accurate. to get an accurate percentage of the world you have to make everyone take the test! DUHH! i know alot of smart african americans and i know stupid ones, however, i also know alot of whites that are smart and probabaly even more that are dumb. ha. but anyways and then what about the hypocrites that dress like the opposite race? im white and smart, my bestfriend is white and dumb, my sister from another MOMMY (lol) is smart, her brother, yeah uhmm not so much!

    point- you cant judge from a little percent of the world!!



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About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] .


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