21/01/2013 07:12 GMT | Updated 22/03/2013 05:12 GMT

The Inauguration of a Black President

For the second time in history, a black man is being publically inaugurated as US president.

Hopefully political supporters and opponents will come together to celebrate a democratic system working well, and that a slowly improving economy will raise peoples' mood.

But while disagreement with his policies fuel part of the intense bitterness with which some of his opponents greeted Barack Obama's election, there can be little doubt that for some, the fact that he is an African-American deepens the bitterness they feel.

Many people may not even be aware of the role which prejudice plays in their intense emotional reactions to Obama's electoral victory. This is because prejudice is both conscious and unconscious, with the unconscious biases only detectable through measures such as slowed responses when asked to press the same computer key for both a black face and a positive word.

But remarkably, prejudiced people actually see black and white faces differently. Tobias Brosch of Geneva University and colleagues found that in the brains of less prejudiced people, their brains showed quite a similar pattern of neural response to both black and white faces. In more prejudiced people, however, the black and white faces triggered a more distinct pattern of neural response in the face-processing parts of the brain.

During the public inauguration ceremony, it seems that the prejudiced watchers will not only feel negatively towards the president, they will actually see a more 'black' face than will less prejudiced watchers. This 'tuning' of the very basic visual system may contribute towards the development of a deeper dislike and more ingrained prejudice.

But political ideology may help overcome prejudice: John Chambers of Florida University and colleagues found that individuals positively rated people who shared their political ideology on divisive issues such as welfare and affirmative action, irrespective of their race. Liberals, just as much as conservatives, tended to rate ideological opponents less positively, and political allies more positively, irrespective of race.

A close partner of racial prejudice is racial 'essentialism', namely the belief that belonging to a particular racial group brings with it an inherent set of genetically-endowed, deep-seated attributes and characteristics which are linked to racially-typical traits and behavior patterns. At the other end of this 'essentialist' continuum are the beliefs that racial groups are mainly socially and politically-determined categories which are not biologically deep-seated.

Carmit Tadmor from Tel Aviv University and colleagues showed that holding essentialist beliefs about another racial group meant you were more likely to stereotype them. What's more, they found that if you held essentialist beliefs, you were significantly less creative on a standard creativity task. They then experimentally manipulated the prominence of essentialist beliefs by having participants read some fake scientific research which either supported an essentialist position about a racial group or did not.

Astonishingly across three different racial/national groups - Caucasian Americans, Asian Americans and Israelis - switching on an essentialist mindset about another racial group temporarily but significantly reduced their creativity, including on a well-known problem-solving task involving a box of matches, a candle and a thumbtack.

The authors showed that this relationship between essentialism and creativity was mediated by the closed-mindedness which the all-or-nothing mental categories inherent in essentialism tended to produce.

The existence of an African-American president beginning a second term should surely contribute to the decline in racial essentialism. And a first female president, whenever she finally arrives, will no doubt do the same for gender essentialism. If we are to accept Tadmor's results, then we should get a payoff in terms of better creativity among people whose creative abilities are unnecessarily limited by the mental blinkers which essentialist categorical thinking imposes.

The world badly needs some more creativity and innovation to solve the pressing environmental, economic, military, social and political problems facing it.