Sept. 15, 2010 -- We humans are a strange sort. We picture ourselves as the smartest animals on the planet, guided more by reason and critical thinking than impulse. But then why, many scientists continue to ask, do we so often believe in nonsense?
Instead of looking for what's good in our fellow travelers, we tend too often to look for what's bad. And in these days of instant global communications, easily accessible to the masses, lies and smears can spread at warp speed.
Nowhere is that more obvious than in the political arena. It's curious that we elect those who must guide our collective destinies not on the basis of who we like, or who we trust, but who we dislike the least. No wonder smear campaigns often work, because so many are so willing to believe the worst about someone, even in the total absence of evidence.
It's a daunting challenge for any scientist to explain why.
Psychologists at four universities pooled their efforts in an ambitious attempt to answer that.
They conducted four experiments at the University of Arizona -- three before the last presidential election, and one after -- and found that voters are more likely to believe an obvious falsehood about a candidate if that candidate is perceived as different from themselves. And they are much more likely to believe it if they are supporting a different candidate, which may not seem all that surprising.
Perceived Difference Opens Up Motivation for Bias, Study Shows
But even a subtle hint that one candidate was somehow different had a dramatic impact on the believability of smears, according to Spee Kosloff, lead author of a study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.
Kosloff worked with fellow psychologists at Michigan State University in East Lansing, the University of Arizona, the University of British Columbia and the University of Leiden, The Hague.
"We found that when individuals see themselves as somehow categorically different from a political candidate, that opens up their motivation for bias against them," Kosloff said in a telephone interview. "Consequently, it motivates them to link attributes they fear or dislike to that candidate."
The research involved 365 politically active college students who were not informed of the purpose of the experiments until later. At issue were two smears, which the investigators labeled "lies," that persisted throughout the last presidential election: that Barack Obama is a Muslim and John McCain is senile.
Kosloff said calling someone a Muslim is not in itself a smear, because in this country citizens are free to practice any religion, or no religion at all, but in the context of a presidential election it is clearly a smear because many voters would not even consider voting for a Muslim, even though they are electing a president, not a pastor. And McCain, who was 72 at the time of the first experiments, was a fully functioning member of the U.S. Senate. The fourth experiment also centered on the allegation that Obama is a socialist.
Study Participants Asked About Obama, McCain
The students were asked to rate the "likelihood" that a statement was true on a sliding scale from zero to 100 percent.
Here are the findings:
Participants who said they supported McCain were 56 percent more likely to believe Obama is a Muslim. But when they were asked to fill out a demographic card asking for their own race, the likelihood jumped to 77 percent. Kosloff said that showed that merely thinking about race put Obama in a different category than the participants, none of whom were black.
Participants who were undecided about the candidates said there was a 43 percent chance McCain was senile. But that number jumped to 73 percent when they simply listed their own age on a card.
Undecided participants said there was a 25 percent chance Obama is a socialist, but that number jumped to 62 percent when they considered race, "even though being a socialist has nothing to do with race," Kosloff said.
The results show that the participants recognized they belonged in a different group than both candidates. One is black, the other is old.
Psychologist: Negative Info Has More Impact on Voters Than Positive Info
"Theorists have posited that one critical determinant of stigmatization is 'separation' -- the identification of a targeted individual as a member of an outgroup," the researchers said in their report. "When persons are viewed as distinctly different, negative labeling can be accomplished smoothly because there is little harm in attributing all manner of bad characteristics to 'them.'"
The study is limited by the fact that all the participants were college students, which may not be representative of the nation as a whole. But the fact that they found a smear much more believable if there was even a subtle hint that the candidate belonged to a different group than themselves is revealing.
Other researchers have found comparable results. Psychologist Jon Krosnick of Ohio State University in Columbus studied nationwide surveys over a 16 year period, 1972 to 1988, and found that negative information had far more impact on voters than positive information.
People Motivated to Vote If They Hate One Candidate
Perhaps voters are looking for an easy way to eliminate one of the candidates. Krosnick also found that people were more likely to vote if they hated one of the candidates than if they liked them both, another reason why so many politicians resort to smear campaigns.
The latest research may shed some light on why people believe charges that are unsubstantiated, but the investigators admit there are still many questions. We probably all know some intelligent folks who believe in absurdities. More is at work here than ignorance.
Perhaps we believe some lies because we want them to be true.
As Francis Bacon put it so many years ago, "Man prefers to believe what he prefers to be true."