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

October 21 • 4:00 PM

Why the Number of Reported Sexual Offenses Is Skyrocketing at Occidental College

When you make it easier to report assault, people will come forward.


October 21 • 2:00 PM

Private Donors Are Supplying Spy Gear to Cops Across the Country Without Any Oversight

There’s little public scrutiny when private donors pay to give police controversial technology and weapons. Sometimes, companies are donors to the same foundations that purchase their products for police.


October 21 • 12:00 PM

How Clever Do You Think Your Dog Is?

Maybe as smart as a four-year-old child?


October 21 • 10:00 AM

Converting the Climate Change Non-Believers

When hard science isn’t enough, what can be done?



October 21 • 8:00 AM

Education Policy Is Stuck in the Manufacturing Age

Refining our policies and teaching social and emotional skills will help us to generate sustained prosperity.


October 21 • 7:13 AM

That Cigarette Would Make a Great Water Filter

Clean out the ashtray, add some aluminum oxide, and you’ve (almost) got yourself a low-cost way to remove arsenic from drinking water.


October 21 • 6:00 AM

Fruits and Vegetables Are About to Enter a Flavor Renaissance

Chefs are teaming up with plant breeders to revitalize bland produce with robust flavors and exotic beauty—qualities long neglected by industrial agriculture.


October 21 • 4:00 AM

She’s Cheating on Him, You Can Tell Just by Watching Them

New research suggests telltale signs of infidelity emerge even in a three- to five-minute video.


October 21 • 2:00 AM

Cheating Demographic Doom: Pittsburgh Exceptionalism and Japan’s Surprising Economic Resilience

Don’t judge a metro or a nation-state by its population numbers.


October 20 • 4:00 PM

The Bird Hat Craze That Sparked a Preservation Movement

How a fashion statement at the turn of the 19th century led to the creation of the first Audubon societies.


October 20 • 2:00 PM

The Risk of Getting Killed by the Police If You Are White, and If You Are Black

An analysis of killings by police shows outsize risk for young black males.


October 20 • 12:00 PM

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they’re motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.


October 20 • 11:00 AM

My Dog Comes First: The Importance of Pets to Homeless Youth

Dogs and cats have both advantages and disadvantages for street-involved youth.


October 20 • 10:00 AM

Homophobia Is Not a Thing of the Past

Despite growing support for LGBT rights and recent decisions from the Supreme Court regarding the legality of same-sex marriage, the battle for acceptance has not yet been decided.


October 20 • 8:00 AM

Big Boobs Matter Most

Medical mnemonics are often scandalous and sexist, but they help the student to both remember important facts and cope with challenging new experiences.


October 20 • 6:00 AM

When Disease Becomes Political: The Likely Electoral Fallout From Ebola

Will voters blame President Obama—and punish Democrats in the upcoming mid-term elections—for a climate of fear?


October 20 • 4:00 AM

Coming Soon: The Anatomy of Ignorance


October 17 • 4:00 PM

What All Military Families Need to Know About High-Cost Lenders

Lessons from over a year on the beat.


October 17 • 2:00 PM

The Majority of Languages Do Not Have Gendered Pronouns

A world without “he.” Or “she.”


October 17 • 11:01 AM

How to Water a Farm in Sandy Ground

Physicists investigate how to grow food more efficiently in fine-grained soil.


October 17 • 10:00 AM

Can Science Fiction Spur Science Innovation?

Without proper funding, the answer might not even matter.


October 17 • 8:00 AM

Seattle, the Incredible Shrinking City

Seattle is leading the way in the micro-housing movement as an affordable alternative to high-cost city living.


October 17 • 6:00 AM

‘Voodoo Death’ and How the Mind Harms the Body

Can an intense belief that you’re about to die actually kill you? Researchers are learning more about “voodoo death” and how it isn’t limited to superstitious, foreign cultures.


October 17 • 4:00 AM

That Arts Degree Is Paying Off

A survey of people who have earned degrees in the arts find they are doing relatively well, although their education didn’t provide much guidance on managing a career.


Follow us


That Cigarette Would Make a Great Water Filter

Clean out the ashtray, add some aluminum oxide, and you've (almost) got yourself a low-cost way to remove arsenic from drinking water.

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they're motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.

How to Water a Farm in Sandy Ground

Physicists investigate how to grow food more efficiently in fine-grained soil.

Unlocking Consciousness

A study of vegetative patients closes in on the nature of consciousness.

Advice for Emergency Alert Systems: Don’t Cry Wolf

A survey finds college students don't always take alerts seriously.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

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