Posted by: Mark | February 2, 2009

Ipods, Podcasts, and Stereotypes

This is a totally stream-of-conscious type post. The elements all connect, I promise.

About 6 months ago I got a new laptop, and with it, a new iPod Touch. I love it, and it teased me into also getting an iPhone within the last few weeks.

About a month ago, my iPod touch went through a very bizarre problem. It would not recognize my two favorite podcasts in the whole world: Radiolab, and This American Life. I’d hook up the device to my computer, I could easily drag music and other podcasts into my library for the device…but for some reason my two favorites were not allowed in. After being very pissed off for a little while, I came up with the clever idea of downloading the podcasts from iTunes directly on the iPod, since it has wireless capabilities. That too, worked for other songs and other podcasts, but not my favorites.

It was a very perplexing, and frankly infuriating, problem. I mean they’re my two favorites! I could still get others, like The Moth, To The Best Of Our Knowedlge, and so on, so why not my favorites? It was like my iPod was conspiring against me to NOT enjoy my favorite podcasts.

Just yesterday, in a similarly unexplained and magical way, the problem resolved itself. My two favorite podcasts are back: I can now once again listen to Radiolab and This American Life. Hallelujah!

I enjoyed the beautiful weather yesterday by going for a run and indulging myself in a recent Radiolab episode called “The Obama Effect.” This episode was so awesome and intriguing, in the same way that the mystery of the iPod itself is intriguing, that I had to write about it.

Basically, the show reports that a researcher found that in giving 20 GRE level verbal questions, whites averaged around 12 right, while blacks only got around 8.5. The classic racial divide in this country put on paper. However, the same test was given to a different pool of individuals immediately following: the acceptance speech of Obama in Denver, and then again after the election victory, and that gap was effectively closed. 12/20 for both whites and blacks! HOLY WHAT?!?!?!?

I immediately thought of something that I have long believed with regards to race relations, and that is the issue of role models. White males in general have a lot of “successful” other white males to see in the public spotlight all of the time, and white males visibly succeed in almost every industry. White females, or black males, or latino females, or whoever else need to look a little more closely, and often times finds more niche markets in which to find “success.” In my experience, I thought that black males could most easily find “successful” black males to try and emulate in the entertainment industry, namely rap and sports. As such, the “ghetto” image is very popular amongst black males because those that are successful carry this image, as compared to seeing black doctors, lawyers, etc. [I of course realize that this is a) not an entirely unique theory, and b) in many ways flawed, and simplifies all humans down to those that they can role model. But I still held this idea in relative esteem.] So to explain this bizarre closing achievement gap, albeit temporary, one just had to see the changing role models.

The podcast episode featured an interview with a scientists whose name I totally forget, and his approach instead dealt with stereotypes rather than role models. Basically, stereotypes of what we are supposed to be able to accomplish exist in our brain. And, while they may not be true, their mere existence distracts us from the task at hand. Aka: if a white male is supposed to take an athletic achievement test and knows he is being evaluated against a black male, the stereotype of the superior black athlete creeps into the white male’s mind, and distracts him enough to lower his performance level. (There’s a study referenced about putting on a golf green that proves this exact point.)

Now THAT is some fascinating stuff. The mere presence of stereotypes, no matter how true or false, occupies some of our mental capacity and subsequently helps to perpetuate the stereotype by reducing performance. Obama’s election put the stereotype of black achievement out of the mind of the GRE test-takers for a while enough to equalize the scores with white counterparts.

Again, I find this to be a fascinating study, and one that offers an incredible amount of insight on the assumed power of stereotypes…and thus, worth sharing.


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