How political operatives get us to believe the worst about their opponents.

How your unconscious mind shapes you.
Sept. 27 2010 10:13 AM

Senile McCain, Extremist Obama

How political operatives get us to believe the worst about their opponents.

John McCain.

Abraham Lincoln was called a Negro. John Adams was referred to as a hermaphrodite. James Madison was accused of being French.

In my last column, I talked about how the content of our minds, rather than the content of misinformation, determines whether we buy slurs about politicians. I mentioned a study that showed that when people are primed to think of a black person rather than a white person, they are more likely to believe that President Obama is the Antichrist.

There was an unanswered question in the piece: Why would priming someone to think of a black person prompt them to believe a smear that had nothing to do with race? If we could go back to the John Adams era and prime voters to think of a black person, would they have been more willing to buy the smear that he was a hermaphrodite?

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It's one thing to make the case that the contents of our minds determine what smears we buy. But how, specifically, does that work?

The 2008 presidential election provides us with a wonderful case study because several figures—Sens. Barack Obama, John McCain, and Hillary Clinton, as well as Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin—were all victims of biases and smear campaigns. New research focusing on Obama and McCain explains the mechanism by which voters bought smears about them. It also explains what happens in someone's mind when he buys a smear. (I talk more about Clinton and Palin here.)

In a study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, researchers tested volunteers to see under what conditions they believed two slurs—that McCain was senile and that Obama was a Muslim. (As with the "Frenchman" smear aimed at John Madison, being called a Muslim would not be a smear in much of the world, but it was a smear in the 2008 U.S. presidential election. Smears are contextual.)

The researchers found that when they subliminally flashed the name Obama before volunteers—the flashes were so brief that the volunteers did not notice the flash—this unconsciously activated words such as Arab, turban, and mosque in the minds of McCain supporters. Likewise, subliminally flashing the word McCain unconsciously activated words such as senile, dementia, and Alzheimer's in the minds of Obama supporters. The same thing did not happen when volunteers were flashed the name of the candidate they supported. The slur-related words were activated only by unconsciously reminding them about the candidate they opposed.

This is our first clue to the process by which we buy smears: Reminding partisans about their political loyalties made their minds hospitable to smears aimed at their opponents.

The researchers, Spee Kosloff, Jeff Greenberg, Toni Schmader, Mark Dechesne, and David Weise, next came up with an intriguing twist. In the weeks before the 2008 election, they asked a group of college students to fill out questionnaires. Buried in the list were innocuous questions about the age and race of the volunteers.

The volunteers were then asked to read two fictional articles that summarized the smears against Obama and McCain: Obama was a secret Muslim extremist and McCain was suffering from age-related senility.

This simple manipulation produced a significant bias. McCain supporters who were asked to list their own race were more likely to buy the smear about Obama being a Muslim than McCain supporters who were not asked to list their own race. Obama supporters who were asked to list their own age were more likely to buy the smear that McCain was senile than Obama supporters who were not asked to list their own age.

What happened? The researchers had screened out volunteers who were black, so McCain volunteers who had been subtly primed to think about race (by listing their own race) were being asked to weigh the validity of a smear against someone from a different race. The innocuous question activated racial concepts in their hidden brains and made them more likely to buy a smear against someone from another race.

In the case of the smear against McCain, since the volunteers were all college students, asking them to list their age subtly reminded Obama supporters to contrast their own youthfulness with the candidate's age. McCain was 72 during the 2008 election.

Reminding people of their partisan loyalties makes them more likely to buy smears about their political opponents. Reminding people to think about their own race prompts them to buy smears about someone from a different race. Reminding people to think about their own age prompts them to buy smears about someone much older. If you can remind people about their own political allegiance and their race at the same time, they are extra willing to buy a smear about someone from another party and another race.

Our willingness to believe in smears is intricately tied to our internal concepts of "us" and "them." It does not matter how the "us" is defined—it could be everyone belonging to a political party, everyone of a certain age, race, or nationality, everyone wearing blue shirts on a particular day. The moment you prompt people to see the world in terms of us and them, you instantly make their minds hospitable to slurs about people belonging to the other group. (I know it sounds like this gives ammunition to political operatives, but, believe me, they already know all this stuff—and how to use it.)

When we look back at smear campaigns of the past—some of which have led to genocidal campaigns of extermination—it can seem mystifying how large numbers of people could have believed absurd things about those from other groups. That's because we do not viscerally feel the allegiances that divided the world of, say, Nazi Germany into "people like us" and "people like them."

Unfortunately, we are just as blind to the consequences of our own allegiances.

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Shankar Vedantam covers the social sciences for NPR. Follow him @HiddenBrain and on Facebook.

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