It did. "White participants exposed to the Confederate flag expressed lowered willingness to vote for Barack Obama relative to control participants," the study concluded. It only took a 15 millisecond flash of the battle flag on screen to nudge people in this direction (a control group did not see the flag).
It isn't the case that the image of the flag takes open-minded people and turns them into blind-hating racists. The effects are subtler than that, activating the implicit stereotypes against black people that most people harbor.
"We argue that the concepts associated with the Confederate flag, such as racist behavior and negativity toward blacks, become accessible in people's minds when they are exposed to the flag," the study's authors write.
When thoughts are more easily accessed, they are then more likely to influence our behavior. "These little contextual cues may shift people's thoughts in a way that they interpret something more in line with what that symbol stands for," Markus Kemmelmeier, a social psychologist at the University of Nevada who has studied the influence flags have on thoughts, explains.
The psychological power of the flag stretches beyond the evaluation of politicians. It may even influence everyday interactions.
The authors of the Obama study ran the experiment a second time, but instead of asking people to judge politicians, they asked participants to judge a hypothetical black man named Robert who refused to pay rent to his landlord until the landlord conducted repairs. In this experiment, half the participants came across a folder with a small Confederate flag sticker on it; the researchers told them someone must have accidentally left it in the room.
When participants were in a room with a Confederate flag, they rated Robert more negatively when asked about how kind Robert was, how aggressive he was, how selfish, and so on.
(Exposure to the American flag changes people too. Kemmelmeier is the coauthor of a 2008 paper that found that sitting in a room where an American flag is hanging increases a sense of nationalism.)
Let's extrapolate the findings of the previous study into the real world. When a white person sees the Confederate battle flag near the South Carolina Statehouse, it's possible that their next interaction with, or judgment toward, an African-American will be slightly more negative. Perhaps they'll go a little extra out of their way to avoid walking near a black man on the sidewalk. Or maybe they'll be more hesitant when a black man approaches to ask for directions.
"What happens when we observe these subtle acts of racial bias?" ask researchers from Harvard, Princeton, and the University of California (Berkeley) in a new paper. The answer, in short, is that we become slightly more biased ourselves. Acts of racism may be contagious.