The Psychology of Smear

If you’ve been watching the news, you’ve no doubt noticed that the McCain campaign  is engaging in a new and arguably more insidious form of smear. The goal is to create an atmosphere of fear about the possibility of a “foreigner” becoming president.  And not just a foreigner, but one with shadowy ties to the Middle East – that’s right, the dangerous kind.  Why for a certain portion of the population does this strategy work?  An excellent article in The Washington Post discusses research about the subconscious associations that underlie the conclusions people draw about “foreigners” if a particular set of information is presented (as the McCain campaign is presenting now). From the article:

In a new series of experiments, Devos has shown that the “white equals American” bias could well be playing a powerful role in the presidential election. (Banaji is a registered Democrat; Devos is not an American citizen.)

During the primary season, Devos, at San Diego State University, along with colleague Debbie Ma at the University of Chicago, found that on a subconscious level, people more easily associated Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton with being American than Sen. Barack Obama. Clinton is white; Obama is biracial.

Even more remarkably, the psychologists found that the volunteers were quicker to associate former British prime minister Tony Blairwith being American than Obama. Blair is white.

On a conscious level, the participants had no trouble identifying Obama and Clinton as American, and Blair as a foreigner. But Devos and Ma found that the subconscious associations mattered: People who were slower to see Obama as American on a subconscious level were less likely to be willing to vote for the senator from Illinois than people who more easily associated him with American symbols. This was true of both Republicans and Democrats.

In a final set of experiments completed just last week, Thierry said the researchers had found an identical pattern when they compared people’s subconscious associations with Obama and his Republican presidential opponent, Sen. John McCain. On a conscious level, volunteers said that both Obama and McCain were American, but on a subconscious level, volunteers were quicker to associate McCain with being American than Obama — and the strength of these subconscious associations predicted people’s voting intentions.

“The less you see Obama as American compared to McCain, the less likely you are to vote for him,” Devos said.

It is important to emphasize that the bias uncovered by the studies was subtle, and only one of many factors that go into people’s voting choices. The research in no way suggests that all of Obama’s opponents are racially biased — people who do not find Obama appealing may well reach their conclusions based on policy positions, partisan identification and personal circumstances.

But Devos said the difficulty in seeing African Americans as fully American is clearly a drag on Obama’s prospects, without which he would probably be further ahead in the polls.

The provocative research also may help explain why Obama has proved vulnerable to negative messages that question his identity and his loyalty to America. From the false rumors that Obama is a Muslim and that he refuses to salute the American flag, to the repeated reminders at Republican rallies that Obama’s middle name is Hussein and recent concerns that voters just don’t know enough about him, the attacks that have dogged the Democratic presidential candidate are not the traditional racial stereotypes that have been used against many African American politicians.

“We cannot think of him as frightening or a likely criminal — he is the antithesis of that,” Banaji said. “So when the mind goes searching for reasons to distrust him, the first thing it lands on are the foreign connections” — Indonesia and Africa, places to which Obama has ties.

“Suggesting Obama is foreign or unknown offers a cover for racism,” she said. “You can’t say he is black and unfit to be president, but you can say that he is Muslim and therefore Continue reading…

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