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.
"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."