The University of Texas at Austin
  • Who would believe that Obama is Muslim?

    By Arthur Markman
    Arthur Markman
    Published: Oct. 12, 2010

    Arthur Markman is Annabel Irion Worsham Centennial Professor of Psychology and Marketing in the Department of Psychology. His research examines the way people think and reason, from the effects of motivation on learning and performance, analogical reasoning and categorization to decision-making and creativity. Markman also is an expert consultant to the Dr. Phil show and writes the blog “Ulterior Motives” for Psychology Today magazine.

    Politics is an ugly business. It would be difficult enough if politicians focused just on the difficult issues that are required to participate in government. It is made harder by the fact that politicians are routinely the target of personal attacks. Often, the attacks in these ads are not even true. As demonstrated by the recent poll showing that 18 percent of Americans believe that Barack Obama is Muslim, people often end up believing these false claims.


    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 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 was true.

    In this study, researchers flashed a candidate’s name (either Obama or McCain) too quickly for it to be recognized. Flashing a word quickly makes it easier to think about concepts related to the word without people’s awareness. This technique is called subliminal priming.

    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 Alzheimer’s and forget).

    If a person has formed a connection between the candidate and a concept, 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 supporters 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, McCain supporters had no connection between McCain and senility.

    The Obama supporters showed the opposite pattern. They were faster to respond to words related to senility when McCain’s name was flashed than when Obama’s 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 conducted another study in which they also looked at people who had not yet made up their minds about which candidate to vote for. In this study, people read one story suggesting that Obama’s political actions suggest he is Muslim and a second story about McCain’s actions suggesting 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 themselves. To test this possibility, the researchers ran the experiment with subjects who were all young people and 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 emerged for the undecided voters. They only believed something negative about a candidate when they saw that candidate as being in a different group from themselves. So, the undecideds were most likely to believe that Obama was Muslim when they initially identified their race. The undecideds were most likely to believe that McCain was going senile when initially classified themselves as being young.

    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 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 them. You might have a favorite TV station or a magazine. The more news sources you encounter, though, the easier it becomes to separate which information reflects the biases of a particular source, and which information is generally accepted.

    Follow me on Twitter @abmarkman.

    More election posts from Arthur Markman:

    Visit the mid-term elections blog series home page for a complete lineup of faculty experts’ analyses.

    • Quote 2
      Bob said on Oct. 14, 2010 at 9:03 p.m.
      This article makes too many assumptions about the meaning of the relationship people make between the word 'Muslim' and 'Obama'. The first is that this relationship is a negative one. I can speak as someone who voted for President Obama and who is also a very conservative, usually Republican, voter and ardent "Tea Partier" - so I also have an inside view of fellow conservatives and others who are skeptical of the federal government. First off, the main reason I voted for Obama is precisely because I believed that the power of his name and the paternal Muslim background would help repair the damage to international relations that occured due to the attacks on 9/11. That is, any potential Muslim connection was a clear positive. (Btw, as it seems I was a bit naive in the power of Obama's persuasion in that arena, I have little reason to vote for him again). Secondly, I can tell you with complete confidence that although I and many of my acquaintances will be quick to tell a reporter or pollster that they believe Obama is a Muslim, we are never asked the reason for our belief. Most conservatives are fairly well read and tuned it - we chuckle at the idea that we believe that Obama is a secret practicing Muslim - it is easy to secretly practice most brands of Protestantism, but a secret Muslim would have a heck of lot of explaining to cover his frequent dietary habits and multiple disapearances throughout the day for prayer). No, by "Muslim" we mean that Obama is a Muslim is a Muslim in the eyes of, well, the Islamic world - because that is the religion of his father. (This can be easily demonstrated, again, by the sophisticated follow-up inquiry that rarely takes place - survey the American Muslim population. You may find that the percentage of Americans who believe that Obama is a Muslim includes, well, Muslims). Therefor we are not saying that Obama believes he is a Muslim nor that he is a practicing Muslim, we are simply pointing out that Obama is indeed a Muslim in the eyes of Islam. Indeed that is why some of us voted for him .. we got a Christian President and the Islamic world got a Muslim one (again, my naivete kept me from realizing that the Islamic world is not as celebratory, and certainly not as forgiving, as we of split religious identities). So, that leaves the question, why are more of us believing (or realizing) that Obama is a Muslim? This is a direct side effect of the publicity surrounding the refusal to release the original, long form birth certificate of Barack Obama. The reason for this refusal seems obvious and word spreads rapidly. The birth certificate states clearly that the father is Muslim - and Obama (or his political advisors) somehow think that seeing this in writing will burn out the eyes of the electorate. Obama freely admits his father's religion (and by implication the Islamic view that he inherited that religion), but there is an aversion to allowing people to see it confirmed on an official document. So - why the INCREASE in the number of people who believe that Obama is a Muslim? Because, and this is true in my own case, before the birth certificate controversy, most Americans did NOT know that the status of being Muslim was paternally inherited. (When Obama did not silence the Hillary Clinton primary campaign's suggestion that he was not born in the US by producing his birth certificate, the question was immediately and predictably begged: why DID he pass on the easy opportunity to make his political opponents look foolish? ). The Protestant culture in America holds that each individual has to make and choose his or her way into 'salvation', being born or going through the motions is not sufficient. Therefor the idea that Obama can a Muslim by birth, regardless of his personal desire, has taken awhile to take ahold. My prediction is that it will continue to grow, and that this is not a bad thing - this is Americans catching up to the rest of the world in understanding alternative cultures and beliefs.
    • Quote 2
      Bill Rountree said on Oct. 14, 2010 at 8:40 a.m.
      Obama has an agenda in which he strongly believes. He has shown that he is quite capable of lying in order to achieve his goals. It is not a stretch for some people to believe he would lie about his core (but secret) religion that he acquired in his youth in order to better forward his agenda.
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