Do some people become receptive to believing slurs and falsehoods about a person if they perceive that person as different from themselves in some important way? Recent research on the psychology behind political smear campaigns indicates they do. It explains why some will accept or believe in outright lies or distortions -- such as President Obama is anti-American, a secret Muslim, and pursuing a hidden socialist agenda.
Recent polls show that these falsehoods are, in fact, accepted by a growing number of Americans. The new research sheds light on how and why such smear campaigns can take root. And that's important to know, in view of the role political smears play in political strategies. At the same time, I think such destructive efforts are part of a backlash, a reaction to growing, positive changes within American society. Poll and survey data indicate that these shifts are towards attitudes, values and behavior that support diversity, empathy, global responsibility, and policies that serve the common good.
First, take a look at the research findings. Regarding Obama, the research found that people are more likely to accept false representations, both consciously and unconsciously, when they are reminded of ways in which Obama is different from them -- whether about racial, social class or other characteristics.
The study was led by researchers at Michigan State, with others from the University of Arizona, the University of British Columbia and Leiden University in the Netherlands. In four separate experiments (three were conducted before the Presidential election and one after), the researchers looked at both conscious and unconscious acceptance of political smears by mostly white, non-Muslim college students.
In one part of the study some participants were shown false blog reports that Obama is a Muslim or a socialist; or that John McCain is senile. Another part looked at how rapidly participants could identify smear-relevant words such as "Muslim" or "turban" after Obama's name was presented subliminally.
Among the findings: Participants who supported McCain said there was a 56 percent likelihood Obama is a Muslim. But when they were asked to fill out a demographic card asking for their own race, the likelihood jumped to 77 percent. The researchers suggest that this indicates simply thinking about a social category that differentiated participants from Obama was enough to get them to believe the smear.
Participants who were undecided about the candidates said there was a 43 percent chance McCain was senile. That number increased to 73 percent when they simply listed their own age on a card. Undecided participants said there was a 25 percent chance Obama is a socialist, but that number jumped to 62 percent when they considered race.
According to the lead researcher, Spee Kosloff, "Even though being a socialist has nothing to do with race, irrationally they tied the two together." Moreover, according to Kosloff, the recent increase in belief that Obama is Muslim likely reflects a growing disenchantment with his presidency -- a sense that people feel Obama is not on their side.
"As his job rating goes down, suggesting that people feel like he's not ideologically on their side, we see an increase in this irrational belief that he's a Muslim," Kosloff said.
"Unfortunately, in America, many people dislike Muslims so they'll label Obama as Muslim when they feel different from him. When people are unsatisfied with the president... our research suggests that this only fuels their readiness to accept untrue rumors."
Ripe For Political Exploitation
Our media-centric culture makes it possible for falsehoods to spread rapidly. Then, as the research indicates, perceived differences can lead to acceptance of outright lies. Regarding Obama, the research suggests that dissatisfaction with his policies can cause people to be more receptive to believing, for example, that he's anti-American, in alliance with our enemies, and, of course, a secret Muslim.
The latter falsehood is particularly relevant because a Pew Research Center poll in August found that 18 percent of Americans believe Obama is a Muslim - up from 11 percent in March 2009 - even though he's a practicing Christian.
One might say that the research findings confirm what's not hard to intuit -- that perceived differences from an "alien other" can make one receptive to lies or stereotypes. And then, shrewd, agenda-driven individuals and political movements can easily exploit that. That this is the case is illustrated by the current controversy over former House majority leader Newt Gingrich's recent comments to the National Review Online, alleging that Obama is driven by a "Kenyan, anti-colonial" mindset that governs the President's actions, which he called "authentically dishonest" and "factually insane."
Gingrich's comments on the National Review's website were inspired, he said, by a Forbes article by Dinesh D'Souza, who wrote that Obama is essentially channeling the soul of his late Kenyan-born father, an African "tribesman of the 1950s." D'Souza argued that "This philandering, inebriated African socialist, who raged against the world for denying him the realization of his anti-colonial ambitions, is now setting the nation's agenda through the reincarnation of his dreams in his son."
As a psychologist, I believe it's very important it is to awaken to the role parental and family influences play in our lives -- along with societal values, political and other forces that shape our conflicts, ambitions, and view of ourselves. But I must say, D'Souza's argument isn't in that league. It's laughable, cartoonish psychoanalysis (and that's my professional judgment!) -- reminiscent of something the Nazis might have promulgated about Jews to justify their "cleansing" policies.
But Gingrich was ready to lap it up, saying that D'Souza's article is the "most profound insight I have read in the last six years about Barack Obama." And, "What if [Obama] is so outside our comprehension, that only if you understand Kenyan, anti-colonial behavior, can you begin to piece together his actions?" Gingrich added,
"This is a person who is fundamentally out of touch with how the world works, who happened to have played a wonderful con, as a result of which he is now president. I think he worked very hard at being a person who is normal, reasonable, moderate, bipartisan, transparent, accommodating -- none of which was true. He was authentically dishonest."
Such comments reveal the underlying psychology, just as the research indicated: If you can perceive Obama as the "other," different from yourself, then you may be open to believing the most far-fetched portrayal of him.
What Lies Ahead?
In today's culture, in which people are increasingly perceptive about such manipulations -- note the popularity of Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, and Bill Maher -- this will increasingly backfire. Moreover, in contrast to those who are receptive to perceiving differences and reacting to them are those who identify the similarities we share with others; how we're alike beneath the differences among people within this globalized, interconnected world. That will make people less likely to fall for the bait.
An example is the quick response to D'Souza's story published in a Columbia Journalism Review article by Ryan Chittum, who calls it a "...shameful piece on Obama as the 'Other'....a gross piece of innuendo-a fact-twisting, error-laden piece of paranoia." He adds, "D'Souza's distortions and lies are clearly designed to make Obama appear to be anti-American, and anti-white; someone different from 'us,' who's bent on carrying out the African tribal mission of his father (whom he met one time, briefly, at age 10)."
In fact, growing evidence from research, polls and demographic surveys shows that the current backlash is a last gasp of a dying, descending set of attitudes and beliefs reflecting an ideology of isolated self-interest and divisions. It reflects a growing desperation about shifts in our society towards an increasingly diverse population and acceptance of that diversity; towards serving the larger common good through political and public policies; and towards recognizing that we're all in the same boat in this globalized world; that we will stand or fall together, as President Obama recently stated.
Right now those shifts are not yet highly visible. The backlash against them reflects that many experience fears and a sense of loss in this changing, confusing and insecure world. Those concerns and should be understood and addressed. But exploiting them should not be condoned or excused.
Douglas LaBier, Ph.D., a business psychologist and psychotherapist, is Director of the Center for Progressive Development, in Washington, DC. dlabier@CenterProgressive.org