MLK Day and Racial Attitudes: Liking the Group More but Its Members Less

Article (PDF Available)inPolitical Psychology 36(5) · March 2014with 136 Reads
DOI: 10.1111/pops.12171
Abstract
Intuition suggests that the Martin Luther King holiday (MLK Day) should improve racial attitudes toward African Americans. However, its influence may depend on whether African Americans are evaluated as a group or individually. In two studies, we assessed racial attitudes either on MLK Day or on a control day. As might be expected, participants had more sympathetic attitudes towards African Americans as a group on MLK Day compared to control days; however, they evaluated individual African American exemplars more negatively on MLK Day compared to control days, who presumably seemed worse by comparison to the eminent political figure.
Running head: MLK DAY AND RACIAL ATTITUDES 1
MLK Day and racial attitudes:
Liking the group more but its members less
William J. Chopik 1
Ed O’Brien 1
Sara H. Konrath 1, 2
Norbert Schwarz 1
Manuscript in press at Political Psychology
Author affiliations:
1. University of Michigan
2. University of Rochester Medical Center
Word count: 4,457
Correspondence concerning this manuscript should be addressed to William J. Chopik,
Department of Psychology, University of Michigan, 530 Church Street, Ann Arbor, MI, 48104.
Email: chopik@umich.edu. Phone: (734) 763-5146. Fax: (734) 647-9440.
MLK DAY AND RACIAL ATTITUDES 2
Abstract
Intuition suggests that the Martin Luther King holiday (“MLK Day”) should improve racial
attitudes toward African-Americans. However, its influence may depend on whether African-
Americans are evaluated as a group or individually. In two studies, we assessed racial attitudes
either on MLK Day or on a control day. As might be expected, participants had more sympathetic
attitudes towards African-Americans as a group on MLK Day compared to control days; however,
they evaluated individual African-American exemplars more negatively on MLK Day compared to
control days, who presumably seemed worse by comparison to the eminent political figure.
Keywords: Racial attitudes, evaluative judgment, contrast effects
MLK DAY AND RACIAL ATTITUDES 3
What is the effect of MLK Day on people’s attitudes about African-Americans? Perhaps
thinking about Martin Luther King, Jr.–a prominent, successful, and highly respected African-
American figure–leads to more positive attitudes toward African-Americans as a group. Recent
research confirms that exposure to extremely positive African-American exemplars, such as United
States president Barack Obama, can improve attitudes towards African-Americans (e.g., Columb &
Plant, 2011; Plant, et al., 2009). Moreover, MLK has specifically been shown to bypass a
“White=American” stereotype (Rydell, Hamilton, & Devos, 2010), suggesting that he could
represent a unique prime within racial attitude paradigms. Might MLK Day improve attitudes
toward African-Americans by bringing attention to the prominent and well-respected African-
American political figure?
Perhaps. Yet, at the same time, there may be a more complex situation to consider. To our
knowledge, the actual effects of MLK Day have never been scientifically investigated. However,
related research on evaluative judgment suggests that there may be potential tradeoffs associated
with exposure to extremely positive exemplars like MLK. On the one hand, extremely positive
exemplars have been shown to increase liking for the groups to which they belong. For example,
encountering a strong agentic female confederate can improve opinions about women as leaders
(Blair, Ma, & Lenton, 2001), experience with a premium consumer product can improve opinions
about the brand (Wänke, Bless, & Igou, 2001), and exposure to a highly successful politician can
improve opinions about his or her political party (Bless & Schwarz, 1998). Such findings are known
as assimilation effects, meaning that when an exemplar “fits” into that category, the positive
attributes associated with this exemplar are extended to the group as a whole.
On the other hand, although positive exemplars can improve overall group perceptions, they
have also been shown to undermine perceptions of specific group members. This is because such
extreme positive examples invite comparisons that leave specific group members looking pale in
MLK DAY AND RACIAL ATTITUDES 4
comparison. For example, exposure to supermodels can make men rate their own wives as less
attractive (Kenrick & Gutierres, 1980), thinking about highly luxurious vacation destinations can
diminish enjoyment for one’s current trip (Raghunathan & Irwin, 2001), and extremely successful
politicians can make other specific politicians within the same party appear less desirable (Schwarz
& Bless, 1992a). Such findings are driven by contrast effects, by which the positive attributes
associated with one specific exemplar are compared against other specific group members.
Thus, when considering whether MLK Day improves or harms attitudes towards African-
Americans, the above findings on evaluative judgment suggest a counter-intuitive answer: MLK
Day may both improve and harm racial attitudes depending on whether African-Americans are
judged as a group or individually. As reviewed above, when an exemplar (e.g., a successful female
CEO) can be included within a general group category (e.g., women), assimilation effects occur
(e.g., women as a group are rated as more competent). Contrast effects occur when this same
exemplar (e.g., the CEO) can be used to construct standards to which other specific group members
are compared (e.g., other women as rated as less competent: Schwarz & Bless, 1992a).
By this logic, MLK can be included within representations of African-Americans as a group
(a superordinate category of which he is a member), but he can only be compared to (and not
“included in”) other individual African-American political figures (lateral categories that are
mutually exclusive). Hence, MLK Day should improve attitudes toward African-Americans as a
group (in line with related research by Rydell, et al., 2010), but could actually harm attitudes toward
individual African-American politicians, who likely fall short of his exceptional standard.
Such asymmetries in the impact of exemplars on group versus individual judgments have
been reported in several domains. Importantly, however, evidence for their operation under
naturalistic conditions is missing. Such evidence is needed to afford insight into real-world
consequences related to how racial attitudes take shape outside the laboratory.
MLK DAY AND RACIAL ATTITUDES 5
The Present Research
We used quasi-experimental designs in which college student participants were randomly
assigned to evaluate African-Americans as a group and a specific African-American exemplar,
either on MLK Day or on a control day. However, because the effects of MLK on racial attitudes
should only occur if and when people are actually thinking about him, we also took into account
whether participants attended or did not attend an on campus MLK Day event. This was included
because comparison-based contrast effects are limited to judgments for which the prime can serve
as a highly accessible and relevant standard. Thus, our predictions should only pertain to people for
whom MLK is accessible at the time of judgment (Mussweiler, 2003). In other words, using the
naturalistic holiday as a means to manipulate racial attitudes should only “work” to the extent that
people are actually aware of its occurrence.
We expected that participants for whom MLK was salient (i.e., those attending an MLK Day
event on the holiday) would have more sympathetic attitudes towards African-Americans as a
group, but simultaneously more negative evaluations of a specific African-American leader.
Because this contrast should apply only to relevant or “matching” comparison targets that invite
contrast (i.e., favorably viewed African-American political leaders), we further predicted that
judgments of less relevant targets would be unaffected by the holiday–lending further support to our
proposed theoretical framework.
Study 1
Method
Participants. Randomly selected students (N=1,366) at a Midwestern university were
emailed to complete an online survey about “current issues.” The final sample (N=199) was 37.2%
male aged 18-46 (M=22.78), 80.4% Caucasian, 7.5% Asian-American, 1.5% African-American,
and 10.6% Mixed or Other Ethnicity.
MLK DAY AND RACIAL ATTITUDES 6
Procedure. Participants were randomly assigned to receive the survey invitation before
(mode=January 9; n=81), on (mode=January 19; n=66), or after (mode=February 2; n=52) MLK
Day 2004. The survey included an unrelated control question about whether the economy would get
worse or better (1=a lot better, 5=stay the same, 9=a lot worse). Participants were asked a valid,
widely-used question assessing attitudes toward African-Americans as a group: whether they
thought discrimination against African-Americans was still a problem (1= no longer a problem,
9=the single most significant problem; McConahay, 1986). We used this item because it measures
indirect manifestations of racism with low social desirability costs, bypassing traditional biases on
explicit self-reports of anti-Black prejudice (McConahay, 1986). Participants additionally reported
their own political orientation (1=Democrat, 2=Moderate Democrat, 3=Moderate Republican,
4=Republican).
Participants also reported their feelings toward a specific African-American exemplar: Colin
Powell (1=dislike him a lot, 5=neutral, 9=like him a lot). At the time of this study, Colin Powell was
arguably the most widely recognized African-American politician, thus serving as a politically-
relevant figure comparable to MLK. Indeed, favorability ratings for Colin Powell in 2004 were
extremely high (87% favorability) and he was considered one of the most popular members of the
presidential administration at the time (Gallup Poll, November 19-21, 2004). As a manipulation
check, participants were asked at the end of the survey to report Colin Powell’s race.
Participants also rated specific non-categorical exemplars in order to demonstrate that MLK
Day should not affect judgments of unrelated targets. Jesse Jackson, a disliked African-American
politician at the time (38% favorability; Gallup Poll, June 27-29, 2003) was included because
disliked exemplars should not be as readily categorized into superordinate groups (Richeson &
Trawalter, 2005). We also included other well-known public individuals of the time, both African-
American and Caucasian-American, to serve as control comparisons: Oprah Winfrey, Halle Berry,
MLK DAY AND RACIAL ATTITUDES 7
Denzel Washington, Bob Dole, David Letterman, Julia Roberts, and Tom Cruise. These exemplars
were included to confirm that the predicted effects should be specific to positive African-American
political figures and not to general public figures who do not fit into the positive/African-
American/politician social category (Bless & Schwarz, 1998).
Finally, following demographic questions, participants completing the survey before MLK
Day were asked the question, “Are you planning on attending any events for the upcoming Martin
Luther King Day celebrations?” (nyes=33; nno=41). Participants completing the survey on MLK Day
were asked the question, “Are you planning on attending any events during the Martin Luther King
Day celebrations? Or have you already attended any events?” (nyes=16; nno=46). Participants
completing the survey after MLK Day were asked the question, “Did you attend any events for the
recent Martin Luther King Day celebrations?” (nyes=9; nno=38).
Results and Discussion
The two control days (before and after MLK Day) were collapsed into one control group
(not MLK Day) because ratings of African-Americans (p=.90) and Colin Powell (p=.99) did not
differ between them.
Because separate groups of participants were asked about MLK Day event attendance on
either MLK Day or a control day, we conducted a 2 (Date: MLK Day versus not) X 2 (Holiday
Accessibility: High versus Low) MANOVA on Target Evaluation Level (Group versus Individual).
There was a significant 3-way interaction between Target, Date, and Holiday accessibility,
F(1,179)=9.94, p=.002 (see Figure 1). Decomposing this three-way interaction, the 2-way
interaction between Date and Target Evaluation Level was significant for participants who planned
to attend an MLK Day event, F(1,56)=12.80, p=.001, as expected. Participants who attended or
planned to attend an MLK Day event reported more sympathetic attitudes towards African-
Americans as a group on MLK Day (M=6.88, SD=1.31) than otherwise (M=5.33, SD=1.52),
MLK DAY AND RACIAL ATTITUDES 8
p=.002, d=1.07. Conversely, these same participants rated Colin Powell more negatively on MLK
Day (M=5.19, SD=1.94) than otherwise (M=6.57, SD=1.76), p=.01, d=.78. As predicted, the two-
way interaction was not significant for participants who did not [plan to] attend an MLK Day event,
F(1,123)=.25, p=.62. Also as predicted, this interaction was not observed for ratings of white
politicians (p=.16), white entertainers (p=.42), black entertainers (p=.99), or Jesse Jackson (p=.87).
This confirms that the negative consequence of the holiday is specific to targets who are highly
relevant to the exemplar (i.e., Colin Powell versus MLK). Also, as expected, economic perceptions
were unaffected by MLK Day, ps>.40, further suggesting that the influence of the holiday is
specific to race-related items, and not that it caused more general changes in evaluative judgments.
Due to the quasi-experimental nature of the current study, we took steps to ensure that our
results were not attributable to other confounding variables. Most notably, people who participate in
MLK Day events could be qualitatively different than those who choose not to attend them, which
may have explanatory power over and above our predicted framework. To address this possibility,
we conducted a binary logistic regression predicting event attendance (yes or no) from perceptions
of changes in the economy, age, gender, race, and political orientation. None of these possible
confounding variables predicted event attendance, all ps>.25. Further, in the MANOVA reported
above, there was neither a main effect of event attendance on target rating nor an interaction
between attendance and target ratings. In other words, individuals who attended an event on MLK
did not give more positive ratings towards African-Americans or Colin Powell overall–a prediction
that would be made if these individuals were indeed different than those who chose not to attend an
MLK event. It should also be noted that the university in this study requires MLK Day event
attendance for many of its classes, clubs, and organizations, helping to explain this result–and
further reduces chances of selection bias into one or the other condition.
MLK DAY AND RACIAL ATTITUDES 9
Study 2
We distributed a similar survey during MLK Day 2012, in order to help rule out alternative
hypotheses and address methodological limitations from Study 1. We included additional exemplars
and control groups and updated the self-report measures to include multiple-item assessments of
group attitudes. Barack Obama was chosen as the positive exemplar. Barack Obama (a Democrat)
allows us to rule out that any ratings can be attributed to political ideology (Colin Powell was a
Republican), or to some generational idiosyncrasies from the early 2000s. As the control day in
Study 1 occurred early during the beginning of Black History Month (February in the United
States), we chose a later control day in Study 2 (March 5th) to rule out the possibility that
evaluations of African-Americans and exemplars stemmed from the accessibility of other positive
African-American figures during this month. We also asked direct questions about MLK
accessibility to assess if attending an event serves as an appropriate measure of MLK awareness.
Method
Participants. Randomly selected students (N=3,969) at a Midwestern university were
emailed to complete an online survey about “emotions, attitudes, and perceptions.” The final sample
(N=213) was 32.9% male aged 18-50 (M=23.31), 80.3% Caucasian, 9.4% Asian-American, 1.4%
Hispanic or Latino, and 8.9% Mixed or Other Ethnicity.
Procedure. Participants were randomly assigned to receive the survey on (mode=January
16; n=106) or after (mode=March 5; n=107) MLK Day 2012. Participants completed the full six-
item scale of modern racism (McConahay, 1986), from which the single-item from Study 1 was
drawn. Another sample item is “Blacks should not push themselves where they are not wanted”
(1=strongly disagree; 5=strongly agree; α=.74). Sniderman and colleagues (1991) have found that
attitudes toward government assistance for African-Americans depend on whether the recipient is a
group (African-Americans) or a specific individual (one unemployed African-American person),
MLK DAY AND RACIAL ATTITUDES 10
suggesting that evaluations may depend on the target of a judgment (an individual or a group, rather
than attitudinal measures like the modern racism scale). Thus, participants also rated their general
feelings towards African-Americans (1=dislike them a lot, 5=neutral, 9=like them a lot) to provide a
more complete picture of attitudes towards African-Americans. As in Study 1, we included other
(less relevant) groups to serve as control comparisons: ratings of Republicans, Democrats,
Independents, Caucasian-Americans, Hispanic/Latino-Americans, and Asian-Americans.
Participants also reported their feelings toward a specific African-American exemplar:
Barack Obama (1=dislike him a lot, 5=neutral, 9=like him a lot). We included other famous (but
unrelated) individuals of the time as control comparisons: Lady Gaga, Bill Clinton, George W.
Bush, Mitt Romney, Justin Timberlake, Katy Perry, Beyoncé Knowles, Will Smith, Mike Tyson,
Eminem, John Lennon, Oprah Winfrey, Joe Biden, Jesse Jackson, and Newt Gingrich. Herman Cain
(22% favorability; Gallup Poll, August 29-September 11, 2011) served as an additional disliked
African-American political exemplar.
Participants completing the survey on MLK Day were asked the question, “Did you attend
(or plan to attend) a Martin Luther King Day event today?” (nyes=32; nno=74). Participants
completing the survey after MLK Day were asked the question, “Did you attend a Martin Luther
King Day event in January?” (nyes=31; nno=76). Participants also indicated the degree to which they
had been thinking about MLK that day (1=not at all, 3=somewhat, 5=very often; to test whether
attending an MLK event serves as an appropriate measure of accessibility) and how important they
considered MLK Day to them (1=not important at all, 3=neutral/mixed, 5=very important).
Participants also reported their own political orientation (1=extremely liberal, 6=extremely
conservative).
Results and Discussion
First, we assessed the appropriateness of using event attendance as a measure of
MLK DAY AND RACIAL ATTITUDES 11
accessibility by conducting a two-sample t-test between the accessibility of MLK of individuals
who attended/planned to attend an event versus those who did not. People who attended/planned to
attend an MLK event indeed had higher accessibility (M=2.27, SD=1.22) of MLK than those who
did not (M=1.32, SD=.59), t(211)=7.63, p<.001, d= 1.15.
We conducted a 2 (Date: MLK Day versus not) X 2 (Holiday Accessibility: High versus
Low) MANOVA on Target Evaluation Level (Group Rating, versus Modern Racism, versus
Individual). There was a significant 3-way interaction between Target Evaluation Level, Date, and
Holiday accessibility, F(2,208)=15.02, p<.001 (see Figure 2). Decomposing this three-way
interaction, the 2-way interaction between Date and Target Evaluation Level was significant for
participants who planned to attend an MLK Day event, F(2,60)=11.84, p<.001, as expected.
Participants who attended or planned to attend an MLK Day event reported greater liking for
African-Americans as a group on MLK Day (M=6.50, SD=1.70) than otherwise (M=5.65,
SD=1.36), p =.03, d=.56. Consistent with Study 1, they also reported lower levels of modern racism
on MLK Day (M=1.50, SD=.43) than otherwise (M=1.87, SD=.69), p =.01, d=.66. Conversely, these
same participants rated Barack Obama more negatively on MLK Day (M=4.84, SD=2.27) than
otherwise (M=7.13, SD=2.51), p<.001, d=.97. As predicted, the two-way interaction was not
significant for participants who did not plan to attend an MLK Day event, F(2,147)=.51, p=.61.
Also as predicted, this interaction was not observed for ratings of the other control groups:
Republicans (p=.49), Democrats (p=.16), Independents (p=.48), Caucasian-Americans (p=.13),
Hispanic/Latino-Americans (p=.26), or Asian-Americans (p=.20). This effect was further not seen
for ratings of the other exemplars: white politicians (p=.92), white entertainers (p=.36), black
entertainers (p=.67), Herman Cain (p=.70), or Jesse Jackson (p=.42).
Finally, we conducted a binary logistic regression predicting event attendance (yes or no)
from age, gender, importance of MLK Day, political orientation, and race. Age was the only
MLK DAY AND RACIAL ATTITUDES 12
significant predictor of event attendance, β=-.06, p=.02, such that individuals who attended an
MLK event were older (M=24.73, SD=6.86) than those who did not (M=22.71, SD=4.73). As in
Study 1, there was neither a main effect of event attendance on target ratings nor an interaction
between attendance and target ratings. Thus, in the two studies, participants who attended an MLK
event did not differ on several demographic or attitudinal characteristics that might be conceptually
related to group and exemplar evaluations. However, participants who attended an MLK event
reported higher accessibility of MLK than those who did not, and only the predicted three-way
interaction between Target, Date, and Holiday accessibility was significant.
General Discussion
Recent research finds that exposure to positive African-American exemplars enhances
perceptions of African-Americans as a group (Columb & Plant, 2011; Plant, et al., 2009). However,
the inclusion/exclusion model of evaluative judgment (Schwarz & Bless, 1992a) predicts that
prominent exemplars can improve perceptions of their group while simultaneously hurting
perceptions of individual group members. This asymmetry exists because exemplars can be
included within the representation of their group (a superordinate category of which they are a
member) but not in the representation of another relevant exemplar (because lateral categories are
mutually exclusive). Consistent with this prediction, we found that when MLK was salient because
of MLK Day, participants reported more sympathetic attitudes towards African-Americans as a
group but evaluated prominent African-American politicians more negatively.
We extend earlier laboratory results (Schwarz & Bless, 1992b) to naturalistic settings and
highlight the potential dangers of comparing targets to idealized standards. Although intuition
suggests that racial attitudes should not be susceptible to such minor situational influences, the
patterns of change we observed in ratings for both African-Americans and Powell/Obama fit well
with existing theory and research suggesting that perceptions of groups and individuals are often the
MLK DAY AND RACIAL ATTITUDES 13
result of complex processes of assimilation and contrasts which yield a wide variety of outcomes
(Corcoran & Mussweiler, 2009).
Nonetheless, the degree to which racial attitudes are affected by the accessibility of relevant
positive exemplars in everyday life may be more complex than the results observed here. In a recent
study of implicit racial attitudes during Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, for example,
Schmidt and Nosek (2010) discovered that racial attitudes towards groups did not change much
during the campaign and early presidency, even when examining significant moments in his
campaign and media mentions of his name. Although this finding seems to conflict the current
study, there may have been a number of domain-specific differences. Although Obama’s election
marks a significant moment in race relations in the United States, his campaign and subsequent
presidency was not necessarily involved in direct discussions of race–certainly not to the extent of
MLK’s civil rights movement during the 1960s, which constituted a major shift in public policy and
national perception to a more egalitarian perspective. Therefore, the accessibility of Barack Obama
may not influence racial attitudes to the same degree as a figure so long associated with racial
equality and attitude change. Moreover, Schmidt & Nosek (2010) did not assess to what degree
Obama was salient to individual participants, which may be necessary to change racial attitudes as
our results suggest (see also Joy-Gaba & Nosek, 2010).
On this note, a potential alternative explanation for our findings is that individuals who
planned to attend an event on MLK Day may have viewed MLK as more important, more self-
relevant, or they may be more knowledgeable about race relations; in other words, our effects could
be explained by a third variable because we did not randomly assign participants to attend an MLK
Day event. Although possible, this would lead to a prediction of more positive racial attitudes
overall and for specific exemplars, which is not what we found. We were also able to control for
participants’ self-rated importance of MLK Day. Moreover, in both studies, there was neither a
MLK DAY AND RACIAL ATTITUDES 14
main effect for attendance nor an interaction between attendance and target; only the predicted
three-way interaction between attendance, target, and holiday date was observed. Attendance was
also not explained by any participant demographic variables. Hence, any potential differences in
perceived importance, self-relevance, or knowledge did not drive the observed effects. However,
there remains the possibility that some unaccounted third variable may explain our results.
These findings provide many rich avenues for follow-up work. For example, future research
should extend these findings to actual downstream behavior. Prior research demonstrates that
priming specific exemplars, both explicitly and with more subtle cues, often affects motivation and
effortful performance (Lockwood & Kunda, 1997). In light of our findings, perhaps people cued
with MLK are more likely to actually participate in racially-related events in February during Black
History Month but less likely to attend a political rally or advocate for the views of a specific
African-American exemplar during that same time. Given the relatively low representation of high-
ranking African-Americans in contemporary politics, such decreased support may ironically hinder
efforts for racial equity among elected officials during a holiday initiated to raise awareness of civil
rights. Even if holidays like MLK Day have overall net positive effects on racial attitudes, such
negative evaluations of specific African-American politicians–individuals in perhaps the best
position to initiate structural changes that facilitate more equal rights–is an important concern that
warrants future investigation.
A final important extension of these findings might examine the potential effects of other
prominent exemplars, and whether our observed assimilation and contrast effects occur following
random assignment. The assimilation and contrast effect from the current study also rely on the
relatively small proportion of each sample that attended MLK Day events. Although we replicate
our results in two studies at different points in time, future studies should randomly assign
participants to high versus low accessibility of MLK to examine the effects of this positive
MLK DAY AND RACIAL ATTITUDES 15
exemplar on ratings of African-Americans and specific exemplars. Our exclusive use of college
students is an additional limitation with regards to generalizing our results to the world at large.
Although we find no evidence that college students should differ from the regular population in
terms of such micro-processes examined in the current study (i.e., basic effects of accessibility on
assimilation and contrast effects), future research should seek to include more representative
samples.
Taken together, the present research highlights potential tradeoffs of attempts to improve
racial attitudes outside the laboratory, helping reveal novel insight into a critical real-world domain.
MLK DAY AND RACIAL ATTITUDES 16
Figure 1. Interaction between target and date for the racial attitudes of participants who
attended or planned to attend an MLK Day event (means) in Study 1. Error bars represent
±2 standard error.
MLK DAY AND RACIAL ATTITUDES 17
Figure 2. Interaction between target and date for the racial attitudes of participants who
attended or planned to attend an MLK Day event (means) in Study 2. Error bars represent
±2 standard error.
MLK DAY AND RACIAL ATTITUDES 18
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Bulletin, 27(1), 14-29.
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