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Mohawks and Muslims and Mosques... Oh My!

September 1, 2010

Brit Trogen

 Science in Seconds Brit Trogen

 

A Pew Research Center poll conducted last month found that 18% of Americans believe Barack Obama is a Muslim, despite the fact that he's a practicing Christian... and that was before his speech on the "Ground Zero mosque." A Newsweek poll taken immediately after those comments puts the figure at 24% (57% if you only ask Republicans... 103% if you only ask Glenn Beck listeners). 

 

While this issue is obviously more political than scientific, for Spee Kosloff and researchers at Michigan State University, it's not one that transcends science entirely. Is there a biological basis for the success rate of smear campaigns? Simple ignorance, or something more? In a study published this month in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, Kosloff argues that while smear campaigns are largely propagated by irresponsible and "biased media outlets" (pronounced "fox" in layman's terms), subtle reminders of racial, social or ideological differences are the fuel that makes them grow. 

 

Of McCain-supporting study participants asked whether Obama is a Muslim, some were first asked to identify their own race on a demographic card. With the idea of race already at the forefront of their mind, the likelihood of participants answering 'yes' jumped from 56 to 77 percent. And it wasn't limited to the POTUS. When asked whether McCain is senile, participants answering 'yes' jumped from 43 to 73 percent, if first asked to list their own age on a card. Anything that reminded participants of the differences they shared with candidates would ensure a greater likelihood of believing the suggestion.

 

Let's give this a try. Please choose your mental state: A) sane B) teetering on the brink of insanity C) slkams#df

 

Now describe your feelings for Ann Coulter.    ...Egad!

 

But on a serious note, could understanding xenophobic impulses help us overcome them? While I'm hesitant to interpret such a complex issue in overly simplistic terms, anything that might lead to more rationality entering these debates can only improve them. 

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