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Clues to Obama's Muslim Problem

Perhaps the belief that President Obama is a Muslim has nothing to do with him and everything to do with us, a new study suggests.

While some conservative groups have continued to suggest the president is a Muslim, and polls have shown many agree with the Obama-Muslim belief, scientists are trying to tease apart reasons for the erroneous link between the Islamic faith and Barack Obama and what that belief means.

"There's a general tendency to think, 'Well, people are ignorant,'" study researcher Spee Kosloff, visiting assistant professor of psychology at Michigan State University, told LiveScience. "We've had plenty of time to get informed, and our research suggests there's something in addition" to ignorance, he said.

The new research, which involved mostly white non-Muslim college students, showed that people are more likely to accept falsehoods like this one when subtle clues remind them of ways in which Obama is different from them, whether due to race, social class or other ideological differences.

"Careless or biased media outlets are largely responsible for the propagation of these falsehoods, which catch on like wildfire," Kosloff said. "And then social differences can motivate acceptance of these lies."

In one study, 64 college students (33 Obama supporters and the rest John McCain supporters) had to decide whether or not a string of letters flashed on a computer screen made up a real word by pushing one of two keys. Before that string of letters came up, either "McCain" or "Obama" flashed on the screen, followed by either a non-word, neutral word, Muslim-related word (such as "Islam") or senility-related word (such as "dementia").

Obama supporters primed to think about McCain identified senility terms more often than those primed to think about Obama. McCain supporters identified Muslim terms more quickly after the Obama prime than the McCain prime. The results suggest supporters of Obama and McCain held implicit associations between the opposing candidate and words related to "smear campaigns."

In another study, participants read false blog reports arguing that Obama is a Muslim or a socialist, or that McCain is senile. Before reading the blogs, participants had either circled their age group or their race. There was also a control group not primed to think about race or age at all.

On average, McCain supporters said there is a 56 percent likelihood Obama is a Muslim. But among those who were primed to think about race, the likelihood jumped to 77 percent. Since the participants were primarily white, Kosloff said this shows that simply thinking about a social category that differentiated participants from Obama was enough to get them to believe the smear.

Similarly, participants undecided about the presidential candidates said there is a 43 percent chance McCain is senile – a number that increased to 73 percent when they were primed with age. Since they were college students, thinking about age equated with thinking about a social category that differentiated them from McCain.

Undecided participants who read about Obama being a socialist believed the smear about 25 percent of the time – a number that jumped to 62 percent when they were primed with race.

"Even though being a socialist has nothing to do with race, irrationally they tied the two together," Kosloff said.

The findings are published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.

Jeanna Bryner
Jeanna Bryner

Jeanna is the editor-in-chief of Live Science. Previously, she was an assistant editor at Scholastic's Science World magazine. Jeanna has an English degree from Salisbury University, a master's degree in biogeochemistry and environmental sciences from the University of Maryland, and a graduate science journalism degree from New York University. She has worked as a biologist in Florida, where she monitored wetlands and did field surveys for endangered species. She also received an ocean sciences journalism fellowship from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.