How do we perceive leadership?

How do we perceive leadership?

Despite comprising nearly 40% of the U.S. population, minorities and people of color are not proportionally represented as leaders in entertainment or politics. In fact, minorities make up 19% of Congress, and play only 19% of the leading roles in broadcast and scripted television. If voters and viewers are more diverse than ever, how do racial disparities in leadership persist? 

Dr. Emily Balcetis and Dr. Charlton McIlwain’s “Psychological Development of Perceptions of Leadership” project received an IHDSC Seed Award to test the cognitive associations between “light” and “good” and whether exposure to mainstream media — which frequently portrays heroes and heroines as males or lighter in skin tone — impacted both adolescent and adult perceptions of the leadership potential of political candidates. Dr. Balcetis spoke to On the Ground about her study, media exposure, and the color association hypothesis. 

Could you provide real world examples of the color-association hypothesis?

Gabourey Sidibe made her acting debut in the 2009 film Precious and was photographed and depicted in popular media often. After she won best actress, she appeared on the cover of Elle magazine and her skin tone was much lighter than it had appeared in other photographs. We conducted an archival analysis of over 30 celebrities, both African American and White, and found that as in Sidibe’s case, when articles include positive text content about the celebrity, the photos selected to accompany the article include lighter skin tone than when the articles includes negative text content. “Light” goes with “good” and “dark” with “bad” in the cognitive associations that the media perpetuates, these data suggested.

Your study required access to teenagers. How did you pitch your study to principals, teachers, or parents?

We described the investigation as asking why gender and racial disparities in leadership still exist. We mentioned that the work investigates whether younger Americans have already formed opinions about what people would best hold leadership positions, and what beliefs they hold regarding their own leadership potential. Middle school and high school students have spent much of their youth with America’s first Black President. That presidency and the values espoused with regards to diversity are quite different than those stated by the current President. Our research team, along with those schools that have partnered with us, believe it’s important to ask what minority children believe now about what leadership looks like and whether leaders can look like they do.

According to Common Sense Media, young children (ages 0 – 8) may spend nearly an hour per day on mobile devices. If media exposure is starting so early, would you ever consider running your study with younger participants?

Yes, we certainly could consider extending our sample demographics to include younger children, in elementary school. We have focused on middle school and high school students as middle school is about the time when researchers see racial minority children and girls—demographics underrepresented in leadership—begin to doubt their potential to lead more so than do racial majority children or boys. We also included high school students as they sit as the next possible generation to shape what leadership looks like. They are soon to vote legally and have potential to change the social landscape.

Are there other factors you are interested in looking at, or factors you’d like to look at more deeply, that may influence adolescents’ evaluation of the effectiveness of political leaders?

We would appreciate the opportunity to explore whether adolescents’ personal beliefs are impacted by other factors of the school environment including the racial diversity of the school and the demographics of the schools’ leadership. We are quite interested in whether a diverse school administration fosters a greater sense of empowerment among all students.

Are you interested in looking at perceptions of political leaders across other identity-based constructs, such as gender?

Absolutely. Diversity means more than race, and the more perspectives and backgrounds reflected in leadership will improve outcomes for all. The quality of decision-making improves as the group diversifies, research finds. Investigating what factors foster greater support for difference in leadership will benefit not only those of groups that include diverse leaders serve but society at large, as we become evermore interconnected.

As the 2018 U.S. midterm elections approach, what role should the research community play in addressing racial disparities in political leadership?

My lab hopes to bring awareness to the multiple influences on individuals’ evaluations of others. We are certainly aware that our political beliefs shape our judgments about people running for office. But we might not be aware of other guiding factors, including the associations we have with skin tone that might tip our evaluation to be slightly more positive or negative than it would otherwise be. Moreover, associations we hold between the concept of “light” and “good” might stem from cultural knowledge, like the way artists depict heaven with a lighter color palate than hell or that we fear the dark more than daylight. These associations are deeply rooted and easily picked up by children. While fearing the dark might not seem like a bad thing for a child to acquire, when those associations are extended to the evaluations we hold of other people, like those with darker skin, we can see the social ramifications of these associations contributing to bias and discrimination. The status quo in American society is a White, male leadership. To change that, we need many people believing in the potential of candidates who don’t look like the norm. Understanding that our evaluations of diverse candidates are impacted by beliefs unrelated to the candidate themselves may lead people to question or reconsider their knee-jerk reactions to diversity that might not be as favorable as they could or should be.


Visit IHDSC’s Seed Award page to read the Fall 2018 call for applications and learn more about our funded projects. This interview was edited for clarity and length.