Who would believe that Obama is Muslim?

Political lies stick to candidates who are different from you.

Posted Aug 16, 2010

Barack Obama

Barack Obama

Often, though, the claims are not true at all. For example, the internet is full of false claims about Barack Obama suggesting that he is a Muslim or that he was not born in the United States. Ultimately, people end up being influenced by these claims, and some even end up believing them.


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 a variety of influences of the 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 were true.

John McCain

John McCain

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 Alzheimers and forget).

If a person has formed a connection between the candidate and a concept, then 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 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, the McCain supporters did not have a connection between McCain and senility.

The Obama supporters showed the opposite pattern. They were faster to respond to words related to senility when McCain was flashed than when Obama 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 did another study in which they also looked at people who had not yet made up their mind about which candidate to vote for. In this study, people read one story suggesting that Obama's political actions suggest that he is Muslim and a second story suggesting that McCain's actions suggest that 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 them. To test this possibility, the experiment ran all young people who 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 came out of this study. Consistent with the results I just described, the Obama supporters were more likely to believe that McCain was senile than that Obama was Muslim. The McCain supporters were more likely to believe that Obama was Muslim than that McCain was senile. But, the undecided voters only believed something negative about a candidate when they saw that candidate as being in a different group from them. So, the undecideds were most likely to believe that Obama was Muslim when they started the study by identifying their race. The undecideds were most likely to believe that McCain was going senile when they started by classifying themselves into an age group.

This last pattern of results is particularly interesting. 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 you can do 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 news sources. We might have a favorite TV station or a magazine that we like. The more news sources you encounter, 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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