Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


Political Tar Is Sticky — Ask Our Muslim President

• August 24, 2010 • 12:14 PM

Hammering on how a candidate seems different from a voter opens the door for smears to adhere.

Opinion polls over the last six months have steadily tracked Barack Obama’s decline in public approval. Even the most optimistic Democratic operative has to admit the trend makes sense — the all-important economy has yet to improve much on the president’s watch.

Last week, however, a much more perplexing poll result came out. The Pew Research Center found that 18 percent of Americans today think the president is a Muslim, up seven percentage points from March of last year. The finding suggests that Americans are not only shifting opinion on Obama’s job in office, but also changing their minds on the facts of his life, trading in what was once a correct answer (Obama is a Christian) for belief in a political smear.

This phenomenon is much harder to explain than the rise and fall of approval ratings. But new research published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General helps explain the processes likely at play.

Spee Kosloff, a visiting professor of psychology at Michigan State University, and several colleagues tested two political smears prominent in the 2008 election: Obama is a Muslim, and John McCain is senile.

People are more likely to believe such smears, the researchers found, if they hold a political bias against the candidate — or if they’re primed to think of ways in which the candidate is different from them. And, it turns out, it takes very little to get people to think of those differences.

Simple demographic questions about race or age were enough to prompt subjects to draw subconscious distinctions between McCain’s age and their own, and Obama’s race and their own. And thinking about those differences made subjects more likely to believe in false smears about a candidate.

“The broad point is that there does not have to be any sort of obvious connection between the differentiating social category and the smearing label,” Kosloff said.

That means if you hold a different belief (or if your belief has diverged over time) from Obama on his handling of the economy, or the war in Afghanistan, you’re also more likely to believe a smear about him, even if that smear has nothing to do with the economy or Afghanistan.

[class name=”dont_print_this”]

Idea Lobby

THE IDEA LOBBY
Miller-McCune's Washington correspondent Emily Badger follows the ideas informing, explaining and influencing government, from the local think tank circuit to academic research that shapes D.C. policy from afar.

[/class] “We found that when someone sees Obama as somehow different from them, someone they oppose in any sort of way, they’re more likely to irrationally associate Obama with attributes they fear or dislike,” Kosloff said. “In America, unfortunately, many people fear or dislike Muslims.”

Obama has not done anything particularly to create a stronger impression that he might be Muslim (in fact, the Pew poll was conducted before his recent comments in support of the mosque and community center near Ground Zero). But if he has done anything to turn off voters — in this case mostly independents and conservatives — on other issues, those people are now more likely to believe in a negative smear about him that happens to center on religion.

“That’s where this research that we have done has a particularly great deal of utility,” Kosloff said. “It’s not about peoples’ rational deliberation on the facts. The facts are clear that Obama is not a Muslim, and Obama is not a socialist. The question then is what can be influencing people’s assessment of a factual topic? What sort of non-rational processes can affect the assessment of something you’d otherwise think is apprehended rationally?”

The researchers tested this through a series of studies. In one, they flashed Obama’s name on a computer screen at a speed registered only by subjects subconsciously. Subjects were then asked to identify whether a string of letters that appeared on the screen constituted a word or not. Some of the words were associated with Islam, such as “turban,” “Koran” or “Arab.” (In the parallel McCain experiment, some words related to senility were “foggy,” “dementia” and “forget.”)

The researchers measured subjects’ reaction time to such words, testing implicit association between the candidate’s name and the smear about him. McCain supporters had a faster reaction time to the Muslim-related words after being subconsciously primed to think about Obama. And the same was true of Obama supporters in experiments testing associations between McCain and senility.

An additional set of studies tested subjects’ explicit reactions to a pair of concocted editorials arguing that Obama was Muslim and McCain senile. McCain supporters who did not answer a demographic question about their race believed on average after reading the editorial that there was a 56 percent chance Obama was Muslim. McCain supporters primed first to think about their race, on the other hand, believed there was a 77 percent chance this was true. (Obama supporters showed similar results when primed to think about their own age and McCain’s senility.)

Kosloff hopes that voters will be less susceptible to such smears if they understand the psychology that makes them so effective, and he’s next planning research to test this.

“Basically, how can people learn to take smearing messages with a pound of salt?” he asked.

But he points out the campaign tactic is as old as American politics itself. James Madison was smeared as a “Frenchman,” Abraham Lincoln as a “Negro” and Franklin Roosevelt as a “Bolshevik.”

Even the politicians who survive political smears to get elected don’t seem to understand how they work. When Obama argued recently in defense of fundamental American values applied “without regard to race, or religion, or wealth or status,” in talking about the New York mosque, he may have ironically increased the likelihood that people believe he is a Muslim.

All he had to do was mention the word “race.”

Subscribe to Miller-McCune

Emily Badger
Emily Badger is a freelance writer living in the Washington, D.C. area who has contributed to The New York Times, International Herald Tribune and The Christian Science Monitor. She previously covered college sports for the Orlando Sentinel and lived and reported in France.

More From Emily Badger

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

November 21 • 4:00 PM

Why Are America’s Poorest Toddlers Being Over-Prescribed ADHD Drugs?

Against all medical guidelines, children who are two and three years old are getting diagnosed with ADHD and treated with Adderall and other stimulants. It may be shocking, but it’s perfectly legal.



November 21 • 2:00 PM

The Best Moms Let Mess Happen

That’s the message of a Bounty commercial that reminds this sociologist of Sharon Hays’ work on “the ideology of intensive motherhood.”


November 21 • 12:00 PM

Eating Disorders Are Not Just for Women

Men, like women, are affected by our cultural preoccupation with thinness. And refusing to recognize that only makes things worse.


November 21 • 10:00 AM

Queens of the South

Inside Asheville, North Carolina’s 7th annual Miss Gay Latina pageant.


November 21 • 9:12 AM

‘Shirtstorm’ and Sexism in Science

Following the recent T-shirt controversy, it’s clear that sexism in science persists. But the forces driving the gender gap are still being debated.


November 21 • 8:00 AM

What Makes a Film Successful in 2014?

Domestic box office earnings are no longer a reliable metric.



November 21 • 6:00 AM

What Makes a City Unhappy?

According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, Dana McMahan splits time between two of the country’s unhappiest cities. She set out to explore the causes of the happiness deficits.


November 21 • 5:04 AM

Sufferers of Social Anxiety Disorder, Your Friends Like You

The first study of friends’ perceptions suggest they know something’s off with their pals but like them just the same.


November 21 • 4:00 AM

In 2001 Study, Black Celebrities Judged Harshly in Rape Cases

When accused of rape, black celebrities were viewed more negatively than non-celebrities. The opposite was true of whites.


November 20 • 4:00 PM

Women, Kink, and Sex Addiction: It’s Not Like the Movies

The popular view is that if a woman is into BDSM she’s probably a sex addict, and vice versa. In fact, most kinky women are perfectly happy—and possibly healthier than their vanilla counterparts.


November 20 • 2:00 PM

A Majority of Middle-Class Black Children Will Be Poorer as Adults

The disturbing findings of a new study.


November 20 • 12:00 PM

Standing Up for My Group by Kicking Yours

Members of a minority ethnic group are less likely to express support for gay equality if they believe their own group suffers from discrimination.


November 20 • 10:00 AM

For Juvenile Records, It’s ‘Justice by Geography’

A new study finds an inconsistent patchwork of policies across states for how juvenile records are sealed and expunged.


November 20 • 8:00 AM

Surviving the Secret Childhood Trauma of a Parent’s Drug Addiction

As a young girl, Alana Levinson struggled with the shame of her father’s substance abuse. But when she looked more deeply into the research on children of drug-addicted parents, she realized society’s “conspiracy of silence” was keeping her—and possibly millions of others—from adequately dealing with the experience.



November 20 • 6:00 AM

Extreme Weather, Caused by Climate Change, Is Here. Can Nike Prepare You?

Following the approach we often see from companies marketing products before big storms, Nike focuses on climate change science in the promotion of its latest line of base-layer apparel. Is it a sign that more Americans are taking climate change seriously? Don’t get your hopes up.


November 20 • 5:00 AM

How Old Brains Learn New Tricks

A new study shows that the neural plasticity needed for learning doesn’t vanish as we age—it just moves.


November 20 • 4:00 AM

The FBI’s Dangerous Misrepresentation of Encryption Law

The FBI no more deserves a direct line to your data than it deserves to intercept your mail at the post office. But it doesn’t want you to know that.


November 20 • 2:00 AM

Brain Drain Is Economic Development

It may be hard to see unless you shift your focus from places to people, but both destination and source can benefit from “brain drain.”


November 19 • 9:00 PM

Gays Rights Are Great, but Ixnay on the PDAs

New research suggests both heterosexuals and gay men are uncomfortable with public same-sex kissing.


November 19 • 4:00 PM

The Red Cross’ Own Employees Doubt the Charity’s Ethics

Survey results obtained by ProPublica also show a crisis of trust in the charity’s senior leadership.



November 19 • 2:00 PM

Egg Freezing Isn’t the Feminist Issue You Think It Is

New benefits being offered by Apple and Facebook probably aren’t about discouraging women from becoming mothers at a “natural” age.


Follow us


Sufferers of Social Anxiety Disorder, Your Friends Like You

The first study of friends' perceptions suggest they know something's off with their pals but like them just the same.

Standing Up for My Group by Kicking Yours

Members of a minority ethnic group are less likely to express support for gay equality if they believe their own group suffers from discrimination.

How Old Brains Learn New Tricks

A new study shows that the neural plasticity needed for learning doesn't vanish as we age—it just moves.

Ethnic Diversity Deflates Market Bubbles

But it's not in the rainbow and sing-along way you'd hope for. We just don't trust outsiders' judgments.

Online Brain Exercises Are Probably Useless

Even under the guidance of a specialist trainer, computer-based brain exercises have only modest benefits, a new analysis shows.

The Big One

One company, Comcast, will control up to 40 percent of Internet service coverage in the U.S., and 19 of the top 20 cable markets, if a proposed merger with Time Warner Cable is approved by regulators. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.