Did Obama Win Because He Addressed White Americans as Individuals?

Appeals to the common good don't mobilize European-Americans as well as ones that ask them to do something themselves, a study finds.
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It may not have set out to study this, but a National Science Foundation-funded study published in the journal Psychological Science earlier this year -- now making the rounds again online, in that way that things sometimes randomly do -- appears to have elucidated a reason the Obama message worked so well in 2008, and especially why it resonated with white voters. 

The piece, "In the Land of the Free, Interdependent Action Undermines Motivation," by scholars MarYam G. Hamedani, Hazel Rose Marcus, and Alyssa S. Fu, posited that the European-American cultural context prizes independence more than, say, the Asian-American one, which also celebrates the value of interdependence. And it explored what sort of appeals were most motivating to individuals raised in these two different cultural contexts.

"[C]an American independence be a cultural and psychological barrier to motivating Americans to think and act interdependently?" the study authors asked. "And ... if so, how can Americans be motivated to take action on pressing social issues that require interdependence?"

What they found, after a series of three experiments involving college students, was that traditional appeals to the common good don't work as well as messages that connect with people as individuals:

In the land of the free, can appeals to increased interdependent awareness and action undermine motivation for independent Americans? The present studies reveal that they can. Specifically, we found that priming interdependent rather than independent action undermines general motivation for both mental and physical tasks and that framing participation in a university class about environmental sustainability in terms of interdependent action (working together) rather than independent action (taking charge) leads to decreased motivation and resource allocation. These effects were robust and suggest that the frequent and pressing calls for Americans to recognize their shared fate and think collectively may result in the unintended consequences of undermining the very motivation they seek to inspire. It is important to note that interdependent action is not inherently demotivating for all Americans. Rather, it is demotivating for European Americans for whom, unlike for bicultural Asian Americans, interdependent action has not yet been systematically and pervasively associated with valued, normative, "good" behavior in their sociocultural context....

In the land of the free, motivating Americans to take action for today's pressing societal challenges will be accomplished most effectively when people are encouraged to "take charge" rather than to "work together."

Lead author Hamedani, associate director at Center for Comparative Studies in Race & Ethnicity at Stanford University, elaborated. "Appeals to interdependence might sound nice or like the right thing to do, but they will not get the job done for many Americans," she said in a statement. 

And what would an appeal to independence sounds like? A bit like Barack Obama, circa 2009, it turns out. Hamedani suggests "be the change YOU want to see in the world"  -- which is, of course, not only a quote from Gandhi but a message that was part of Obama's winning campaign in 2008, and the slogan for his first inauguration.

Reached in California, Hamedani suggested that a shift away from independence-based messaging toward calls to act for the public good and for the good of society might also help explain Obama's diminished support among white Americans since winning office for the first time.

"The big point in our study is to consider the fact that this independent streak in the American context is a huge psychological trigger or motivator for action," she said. Meanwhile, "we're hearing a lot of messages urging Americans to be more interdependent -- from gun control to the environment to even getting their flu shots." Those messages are likely to be less motivating, and may even be associated with weakness, according to community studies on the same topic with adults done by her team. "Independence was more motivating," she said. "...Instead of saying something like, 'We're responsible for one another so we must do x behavior' -- do more gun control, recycle more -- it might be better to say, 'You can make this better for all Americans' ... really emphasizing their individual agency."

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Garance Franke-Ruta is a former senior editor covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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