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Is Hillary Clinton pathologically ambitious?

Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton, professor of psychology | October 7, 2010

CNN is reporting here that an Obama-Clinton ticket is “on the table” for the 2012 elections.

I can already hear one angle of the accusations from the Hillary Hater Club: is it not enough to be Secretary of State? Eight years in the White House too little? Why is she SO power hungry?

Hillary ClintonIf you think I’m exaggerating, consider the following comment from David Geffen (check it out here), a one-time Clinton ally who in 2007 decided that Hillary Clinton could not pull the country together, “no matter how smart she is or how ambitious she is — and God knows, is there anybody more ambitious than Hillary Clinton?” Or, this choice quote from Anne Applebaum in the Daily Telegraph: “the only real issue is Hillary Clinton’s extraordinary, irrational, overwhelming ambition.” Clearly, “ambition” is one of the lenses through which people interpret Hillary Cinton’s behavior.

This perception of Clinton has always bothered me. The reason is gender inequity. The last time that I checked, nobody has accused other presidential candidates or presidents (all male) of being too ambitious, despite the fact that gunning for the job of “leader of the free world” would seem to require–by any standard–some degree of extraordinary ambition.

In my experience, arguments such as “sexism plays a role here” or “race was a factor in this incident” (see, for example, Lebron James’ recent claim about race factoring into reactions to “The Decision”) when dealing with specific individuals or events tend not carry much water when trying to convince people about group-level inequities. This is generally because at the individual level, it is often easy to find alternative explanations and attenuating circumstance. No question, Hillary Clinton has ambition; LeBron James’ drawn-out announcement that he was “taking his talents” to Miami could have been handled better (see, e.g., Charles Barkley’s perspective here).

One of the central themes of this blog, and of my career more generally, is to get beyond these difficult specific examples, which too often result in finger-pointing and accusations of overreaction (see, e.g., responses to my last blog) and to examine the systematic ways in which cognitive processes are actively at work in the maintenance of racial and gender inequalities.

Why would Hillary Clinton in particular be vulnerable to perceptions that are– I suspect unconsciously– sexist? The answer lies in the fact that Hillary Clinton was forging into a territory that is overwhelmingly associated in people’s minds with men — the presidency in particular, and leadership roles more generally. As noted in the New York Times recently, women continue to lag behind men in appointments to position in leadership. And here is why these kinds of strong mental associations matter for the perpetuation of inequities.

Have you ever heard a remake of a song you are used to, and find yourself not really caring for the remake? This happened to me just yesterday; I was watching the “new” Pink Panther on Netflix and the new musical arrangement of the original Henry Mancini theme was now faster, louder, and played with electric guitars. I hated it. Only after watching several episodes (they are short, like the original) and hearing the song every time did I sort of get used to it. But only sort of.

Cognitive science will tell us that part of my reaction to the new musical arrangement has to do with what is known as expectancy violations. In other words, as a result of watching the original Pink Panther all through my childhood, I developed a certain familiarity with one particular rendition of the theme, and the violation of my expectation of how the theme should sound led me to dislike the new tune. The same thing has also happened to me in reverse–I’ll hate the original rendition of a song because I have gotten used to — somehow attached — to a newer version. There is probably nothing inherently better or worse about one musical arrangement over another; it’s just a matter of taste. But expectations factor hugely into our taste. Expectancy violations are, quite simply, aversive, and are often associated with strong negative emotion.

My colleagues Sang Hee Park, Alex O’Connor and I recently published a paper in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology (vol 44, pg. 971-982) showing the downstream effects of expectations and expectancy violations for perceptions of men and women. The results directly parallel the battle for equitable perception that Hillary Clinton is fighting.

In the study, we had a fictitious man and woman behave assertively in a variety of situations–speaking their minds, providing an opinion, laying down the law–and asked judges to rate how assertive they thought the “targets” (we use this word because the fictitious characters are the targets of the study participants’ judgments) actually were. The behaviors were exactly the same across the two targets. However, we also varied the contexts in which the assertive behavior happened. We chose some of these contexts to be strongly associated with men in people’s minds (e.g., at the mechanic, in a conversation about Wall Street), and other contexts to be strongly associated with women (e.g., planning the children’s birthday party; choosing the color of the curtains).

The results are striking — in male dominated contexts (e.g., at the mechanic), the female who spoke her mind was rated as being much more assertive than the male who had shown the exact same behavior. However, in female dominated contexts (e.g., at the curtain store), the man who spoke his mind was now rated as much more assertive than the woman! Same behaviors, same targets, but the results flipped depending on the context in which the two targets spoke their minds.

What does this have to do with expectations?

In male dominated contexts, we already come into the situation with an expectation (you might it even call it a stereotype) that a man will behave assertively–let’s say, a 7 on ten-point scale–and that a woman will behave passively (let’s say, a 3 on the scale). You then have a man and a woman speaking their minds–let’s say this behavior is a “7.” Compare 7 to your expectation of 7, and you end up saying, “this guy is moderately assertive.” Compare 7, though, to your expectation of 3, and suddenly you’re saying “Mary Jane is extraordinarily, irrationally assertive, even aggressive. What IS her deal??”

The critical thing for the study was to show that exactly the opposite happens in female dominated contexts. At the curtain store, we now fully expect the woman to be the decider (the 7), and a man to say, “uh, OK.” (the 3). When they both speak their minds (a 7) in this context, one would fully expect just the opposite to happen–the woman’s behavior is seen as normative but we ask why the guy cares so much about the color of the curtains anyway. And this is exactly what the study showed.

The study involved many people making judgments about these targets, so it’s not a finding that is isolated to any one perceiver, any one target. There is a systematicity to people’s judgments that involves both the gender of the target, and people’s associations of certain genders with certain contexts. This interaction leads directly to unequal perceptions of gender– gender inequity, invisible and not necessarily ill-intentioned. Yet it is rooted in structural inequalities in the home and the workplace that our efforts towards diversity can and need to address.

I’m all for breaking those context associations– more women at the mechanic! More men at curtain stores! And more women at the White House.

For more on how unconscious bias affects our judgments of others, check out the introductory chapter of the anthology, Are We Born Racist?.

Cross-posted from Psychology Today.