Posts tagged ‘Journal of Experimental Psychology’

October 6, 2010

Smear Campaigns

by Vince

Our minds continue to fascinate me. So many aspects factor in to how it operates, processes information (and disinformation), and sees the world and everything in it.

Enter Shankar Vedantam. He sees our minds as more powerful than the misinformation we take in. So in the end, if your mind is able to sift through the information that comes your way, you may then not count yourself as part of the 1 in 5 group of Americans thinking Barack Obama is a Muslim (or the antichrist). Unfortunately, this process of misinformation intertwined with smear campaigns has a history:

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

You can show your friend who doubts Obama’s citizenship his birth certificate. You can talk through the idiocy of the antichrist theory or how it is not our job or in our ability to know G-D’s way. You could really do this for both sides when vitriolic comments arise. But our minds have the capability to jettison information that doesn’t suit us or line up with our general thinking. So, that friend could just say the copy of Obama’s certificate is fake.

One of the studies Vedantam noted is worth sharing:

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 Arabturban, and mosque in the minds of McCain supporters. Likewise, subliminally flashing the word McCain unconsciously activated words such as seniledementia, 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.

Vedantam notes the grave danger of forming life into “us” versus “them”:

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.

This is found in religiously tainted politics, religious fringes, and general aspects within life. Politically, this can be heard by Sarah Palin and other hard line Republicans. Could this be because of their frustration out of not being in power and control? Could the Democrats not want or need to comply because of their presidential, House, and Senate control? Maybe. But I appreciate this quote from Barack Obama, along with his record of looking to work with the other side, that shows me not only where he wants to go but where his mind is:

“What you won’t hear from this campaign or this party is the kind of politics that uses religion as a wedge, and patriotism as a bludgeon — that sees our opponents not as competitors to challenge, but enemies to demonize.”– Barack Obama, June 3, 2008