Who would believe that Obama is Muslim?

Do you really know why you hate the incumbent?

Arthur Markman is Annabel Irion Worsham Centennial Professor of Psychology and Marketing in the Department of Psychology. His research examines the way people think and reason, from the effects of motivation on learning and performance, analogical reasoning and categorization to decision-making and creativity. Markman also is an expert consultant to the Dr. Phil show and writes the blog "Ulterior Motives" for Psychology Today magazine.

Politics is an ugly business. It would be difficult enough if politicians focused just on the difficult issues that are required to participate in government. It is made harder by the fact that politicians are routinely the target of personal attacks. Often, the attacks in these ads are not even true. As demonstrated by the recent poll showing that 18 percent of Americans believe that Barack Obama is Muslim, people often end up believing these false claims.


This question was addressed in a paper by Spee Kosloff, Jeff Greenberg, Toni Schmader, Mark Dechesne and David Weise in the August 2010 issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. These authors studied exposure to false claims about politicians by looking at beliefs during the 2008 presidential election between Barack Obama and John McCain.

The studies in this paper are a little complicated, so stick with me.

One potential effect of false political information is that it can affect how easy it is to think about the relationship between the candidate and the false information. In the 2008 election, there were rumors that Barack Obama was Muslim. There were also rumors that John McCain was senile. Neither of these statements was true.

In this study, researchers flashed a candidate's name (either Obama or McCain) too quickly for it to be recognized. Flashing a word quickly makes it easier to think about concepts related to the word without people's awareness. This technique is called subliminal priming.

After the candidate's name was flashed, participants in the study saw a set of letters that either formed a word or it did not. They had to respond whether the letters formed a word. Some of these words were related to Islam (like mosque and Koran). Other words were related to being senile (like Alzheimer's and forget).

If a person has formed a connection between the candidate and a concept, they should be faster to make judgments about words related to that concept than if they do not see a connection between the candidate and a concept.

For participants in the study who were McCain supporters, they were faster to respond to words relating to being Muslim if they saw Obama flashed before the word than if they saw McCain flashed before it. So, the McCain supporters had a connection between Obama and being Muslim. However, the McCain supporters were no faster to respond to words about senility whether they saw McCain or Obama flashed before them. That is, McCain supporters had no connection between McCain and senility.

The Obama supporters showed the opposite pattern. They were faster to respond to words related to senility when McCain's name was flashed than when Obama's was flashed. They were no faster to respond to words relating to Islam depending on whether McCain was flashed or Obama was flashed. So, the Obama supporters had a connection between McCain and senility, but not between Obama and being Muslim.

So far, this pattern makes a lot of sense. You would expect that people would be most likely to see a connection between a candidate and something seen to be negative for that candidate when they already don't like that candidate.

But, what causes this effect? To look at this more carefully, the experimenters conducted another study in which they also looked at people who had not yet made up their minds about which candidate to vote for. In this study, people read one story suggesting that Obama's political actions suggest he is Muslim and a second story about McCain's actions suggesting he may be going senile.

The authors reasoned that people who are undecided might be most likely to believe a statement when they see the candidate as belonging to a different group from themselves. To test this possibility, the researchers ran the experiment with subjects who were all young people and were also not African American. Some participants were asked to circle their age group from a list that included young and old ages. Others were asked to circle their race from a list that also included African American. A third group didn't do either of the ratings.

An interesting pattern of results emerged for the undecided voters. They only believed something negative about a candidate when they saw that candidate as being in a different group from themselves. So, the undecideds were most likely to believe that Obama was Muslim when they initially identified their race. The undecideds were most likely to believe that McCain was going senile when initially classified themselves as being young.

The undecided participants in this study were not aware that there was any relationship between identifying their age or race and their later belief. So, factors that lead you to see a candidate as being part of the same group you belong to or a different group can then influence what you come to believe about that candidate later. This may be true, even if you don't recognize why you see that candidate as belonging to a different group from you.

So, what can you do as we enter another election season? One useful thing is to pay more attention to the election process. There are lots of sources of news out there. Many of us only pay attention to a small number of them. You might have a favorite TV station or a magazine. The more news sources you encounter, though, the easier it becomes to separate which information reflects the biases of a particular source, and which information is generally accepted.

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