Articles and Analysis


What we know about political misperceptions

Topics: Barack Obama , birther , conspiracy , George W. Bush , Muslim

In the wake of the publication of a Pew poll showing an increase in the false belief that Barack Obama is a Muslim, misperceptions have reached a new level of prominence in the national discourse, including a mention of the Muslim myth on Newsweek's cover. In addition, MIT political scientist Adam Berinsky released some new public opinion data on the topic Monday, so it seems like a good time to review what we do -- and don't -- know about misperceptions.

Belief in the Muslim myth has increased

As I noted at the time, the Pew poll found that the proportion of the public identifying Obama as Muslim increased from 11% in March 2009 to 18% in August 2010 and the proportion who didn't know his religion increased from 34% to 43%. This shift was corroborated by a subsequent Newsweek poll using somewhat different wording (PDF), which found that the proportion of the public saying Obama is Muslim had increased from 13% in June 2008 to 24% in late August 2010. (Time similarly found that 24% of Americans think Obama is Muslim, but no previous survey is available for comparison.)

Americans hold several false beliefs about Obama

In addition to the Muslim myth, polls have shown that a substantial fraction of the public believes Obama was not born in this country. Most recently, CNN found that 27% of Americans think Obama was "probably" or "definitely" born in another country (Berinsky similarly found in July that 27% said Obama was not born in this country.) The Newsweek poll mentioned above also found that 31% of Americans said the allegation that Obama "sympathizes with the goals of Islamic fundamentalists who want to impose Islamic law around the world" is "definitely" or "probably" true.

False beliefs about Obama are concentrated among Republicans

Pew found that the proportion of Republicans saying Obama is Muslim increased from 17% in March 2009 to 31% in August 2010 and the proportion who don't know increased from 28% to 39%. Similarly, CNN's poll showed that 41% of Republicans think Obama was "probably" or "definitely" not born here, a figure that corresponds closely to Berinsky's 46-47% (based on his bar chart). Newsweek also found that 52% of Republicans thought that the claim that Obama wanted to impose Islamic law was "definitely" or "probably" true. These figures are consistent with other polls showing differences by party in politically salient misperceptions (e.g., Iraq having WMD before the U.S. invasion). It's important to note that misperceptions are not confined to Republicans. Democrats, for instance, were far more likely than independents or Republicans to endorse the claim that the Bush administration was complicit in the 9/11 terrorist attacks in a 2006 Scripps poll, a 2009 PPP poll, and Berinsky's 2010 poll.

These large partisan differences in misperceptions appear to be the result of people's bias toward factual claims that reinforce their partisan or ideological views (selective acceptance). This pattern of motivated reasoning -- plus possible biases in the information to which people are exposed (selective exposure) -- appears to result in large partisan differentials in misperceptions along partisan or ideological lines (see my research here and here for more).

Misperceptions are not simply a function of ignorance

As Berinsky and many others have found, people who know more about politics (as measured by the questions political scientists typically use to measure political knowledge) tend to be less likely to hold false beliefs. However, that doesn't mean that the problem is simple ignorance. A better approach is to distinguish between ignorance (when you know you don't know the truth) and misinformation (when you falsely believe you know the truth). Politically salient misperceptions typically fall into the latter category, which is why they are so pernicious. For instance, I found that Republicans who believed they were knowledgeable about the Clinton and Obama health care plans were more likely to endorse false claims about them (Berinsky misstates my finding on this point).

In addition, elites often appear to play an important role in spreading false claims ranging from "death panels" to the Muslim myth and Obama supporting Islamic law. For this process to operate, partisans must be exposed to the message from elites, understand it, and integrate it into their belief system, which is not consistent with a simple story of ignorance. GW political scientist John Sides has provided evidence that is consistent with this account, showing that the persistence of the Obama Muslim myth increased more during Obama's presidency among Republicans with higher levels of education:


As TNR's Jon Chait notes, Princeton political scientist Larry Bartels similarly found that more knowledgeable partisans were more likely to develop false beliefs of economic performance that was consistent with their political views:

Voters' perceptions may be seriously skewed by partisan biases. For example, in a 1988 survey a majority of respondents who described themselves as strong Democrats said that inflation had "gotten worse" over the eight years of the Reagan administration; in fact, it had fallen from 13.5 percent in 1980 to 4.1 percent in 1988. Conversely, a majority of Republicans in a 1996 survey said that the federal budget deficit had increased under Bill Clinton; in fact, the deficit had shrunk from $255 billion to $22 billion. Surprisingly, misperceptions of this sort are often most prevalent among people who should know better--those who are generally well informed about politics, at least as evidenced by their answers to factual questions about political figures, issues, and textbook civics.

The beliefs that people express aren't fixed

While the prevalence of these misperceptions has been repeatedly validated in national polls, it's important to note that the exact responses people provide will vary depending on question wording, context, etc. as in any other survey. For instance, in research with Reifler and Duke undergraduates, we found (PDF) that the presence of non-white interviewers appeared to influence how participants responded to corrective information about Obama's religion. Likewise, a study (PDF) recently published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology found that McCain supporters were more likely to accept the claim that Obama is Muslim when their racial identity was made salient.

Does this mean these beliefs aren't "real"? It's hard to know what that claim means. All survey responses are to a certain extent an artifact of the context in which they are solicited -- there is no way to measure what someone "really thinks." However, it's possible that people are expressing an ideological or partisan view as much as they are making a factual claim about the world. The strongest claim along these lines comes from Reason's Julian Sanchez, who suggests that misperceptions like the claim that Obama was not born in the U.S. are best conceptualized as "symbolic beliefs" rather than statements of what people believe to be literally true -- an argument that was subsequently endorsed by New York Times columnist Ross Douthat and ABC News polling consultant Gary Langer. Determining to what extent these beliefs are "symbolic" rather than literal is an important question for future research.

Update 9/16 1:26 PM: See John Sides for more on recent research into partisan bias in factual beliefs about politics.

[Cross-posted to brendan-nyhan.com and Huffington Post]



How about the question is Obama an atheist? Because that's what I believe.

I think the belief or perception that he is Christian is false and his religious practice is more political theatre than faith.

He's an athiest who was raised sort of Muslim, by a Muslim step father in a Muslim country. Then he became sort of Christian, by attending Rev. Wright's church in Chicago for political reasons not reasons of belief.

I mean if he wasn't in that church when Rev. Wright was preaching hateful sermons against the US, and had no idea about them, then he wasn't there very often was he?

He doesn't demonstrate a great deal of faith in practice of any religion, which was very evident in previous presidents such as Clinton, Carter, and Bush II.

Honestly, he's sort of not religious at all, which is why he's having a hard time convincing people. How about asking that question.



sb: You need to learn how to do research!



"How about the question is Obama an atheist? Because that's what I believe."

I kind of agree, but not that he's an atheist. An atheist believes there IS no higher power. Nature operates independently and all creation were random accidents. Obama says he prays. Any sort of spiritual meditation rules out atheism. An atheist thinks praying is a croc.

He also does not seem to harbor enough doubt about a higher deity to call him an agnostic. He seems to think there is a force for greater good.

I'd call Obama more of a universalist than an atheist. He clearly believes in a higher power, but I don't think he necessarily thinks any religion has it all right.

Obama wrote and stated that he likes the "morality" of Christianity and thinks that's the most important aspect to impart to one's children. A committed Christian would say accepting Jesus as your savior, nothing else trumps that.

People that say they like Christianity for the "morality" of it usually harbor universalist sympathies. If you like Christianity for the morality that means you like the Buddhist or Confucionist or Islamic moral codes that are similar and see some interchangability in them.

The bigger question is who gives a damn? Some of the founding fathers were deists, especially Jefferson, who rewrote the freaking Bible for Pete's sake.



The "foreign-ness" and "other-ness" of Obama contribute to the persistent wrong beliefs.

If his father had been an exchange student from Germany or Norway, I doubt they'd be calling him a muslim. If Barack had gone to prep school in Ireland and not Indonesia I doubt they'd be calling him a muslim.

I'm not one to claim racism on most Obama opposition, but the muslim issue is one that I don't think can be denied carries with it some latent racism.



"He's not one of us" is the basic message that the people expressing the muslim belief are trying to say. He is other, undesirable, un-American.



"the false belief that Barack Obama is a Muslim"

False according to whom? Partisan hacks, like Mr. Nyhan, don't get to tell us what is true or false when it comes to a man's religion. There is only one person in the world who knows the answer to that question - and he is a lying slimy Chicago politician.

What is the liberal obsession with Obama's religion? I don't agree with Aaron_in_TX often, but this time I do. Who gives a damn?

Who cares are the uber-liberals, like Mr. Nyhan, who want a weapon to slap around opponents of Obama saying, "look how stupid they are, look how stupid they are, look how stupid they are..."

End your obsession with the religion question. This is not a question of religion. It is about trust. The same people who say he is lying about his religion will say he is lying about the stimulus, lying about GM & Chrysler, lying about Obamacare, lying about cap & trade, lying about the bush tax cuts, and lying about just about anything else you can imagine.

Religion isn't the issue. Trust is. A growing number don't trust Obama on even something as fundamental as what religion he claims to be. Why don't you adress that instead?




If his father were Muslim and from Norway or Germany and his step father, and he went to Muslim schools, sure they would be saying the same things.

These perceptions may hurt Obama, but they may also help him, which no one has polled.

His "otherness", and "foreignness", while still being American, black, urban, educated etc. made him appealing to everyone.

He's white enough to appeal to whites. Black enough to appeal to blacks. Muslim enough to appeal to Muslims and Christian enough to appeal to most moderate Christians. Asian enough to appeal to Asians, mixed race enough to appeal to those of mixed race. etc. etc.

Obama has played the everyman very well. So the assumption that these ideas aren't at least partly cultivated by his team, or that they hurt him, or that they are racist is quite an assumption. He even speaks with a different accent when addressing differen t audiences.

Sure some people who don't like Obama are racist. I'm not naive enough to think that racism doesn't exist in America. I think however that labelling these "misconceptions" which are really a part of Obama's everyman appeal as entirely racist is overly simplistic and reactionary.

As far as his religion. He may be universalist as you call it. He may be agnostic. He says he prays. Yeah of course he does. He doesn't have a choice.

I still place bets on politically opportunistic atheist.



If "it's possible that people are expressing an ideological or partisan view as much as they are making a factual claim about the world" then perhaps those who say Elvis is alive would be surprised if he actually appeared!


Yes, the Muslim (and birth certificate) responses are about trust, and Obama continues to demonstrate that he can't be trusted...



Comp Con ,

I have to agree with you. Perceptions are not flase. They are just perceptions.

Its a trust issue. But as I just said his everyman appeal has definately been cultivated by his team.

There is a downside to every political perception choice. People are choosing to focus on the downsides now, because Obama's shiny newness has worn off. That's all.



"If his father were Muslim and from Norway or Germany and his step father, and he went to Muslim schools, sure they would be saying the same things."

How many madrassas were there in Norway in the 60s or 70s?

White europeans are not associated with Islam.

If he went to school in Norway people would say he was a secret utopian socialist, marxist, electronica-lover, gay, or something. Not Muslim.



Beliefs and perceptions aren't true or false.

That fact that people have any beliefs or perceptions about Obama's life is the interesting point.

I said on another thread that releasing a one page bill of health instead of releasing all his medical records is one of the reasons some of these beliefs or perceptions still exist.

If his team really wanted to dispell belief and perception about Obama, they would release his entire medical record, like all other Presidents.

His team makes these choices for a reason and I guarentee the reason is they think it benefits him more than it hurts him.



"He says he prays. Yeah of course he does. He doesn't have a choice.

I still place bets on politically opportunistic atheist."

It's almost a religion in itself to believe that every word he utters is a lie.

At least that's how C.S. Lewis argued against Atheists when they questioned the veracity of scripture.

It basically boils down to a decent number of Americans will never accept politicians from the side they don't like, no matter who they are, what they say, or what they do.

Like the people that said Bush was the mastermind of 9/11, Clinton called hits on people, or LBJ killed JFK.



"like all other Presidents."

LOL, that only started with Reagan because his age was an issue. JFK hid basically everything about his health. Guy would have been dead in less than 10 years if he hadn't been shot.



Aron there are a lot of Muslims in Europe, everywhere in Europe. There are a lot of white muslims. The madrassas he went to was in Indonesia, where he lived with his mother and stepfather.

I maintain that if his father were Muslim and from Norway or Germany and white, and he was raised in a Muslim country by a muslim step father and went to Muslim school, people would be saying exactly the same things.

Do you really think it's about how much melanin there is in his skin? And do you really think that didn't help him more than it hurts him?

He wouldn't have won the primary against Hillary if he had a white Muslim father from Germany. I can tell you that much.

He would never even have been a Senator from Chicago if he weren't black and had gone to Rev Wrights church, which is why he went to Rev. Wrights church. It wasn't for the overflowing Christian love and kindness coming from the sermons.

He might be a state senator from somewhere else, but not from there.




And if you think I am a conspiracy theorist because I assert that the everyman appeal is cultivated by his team and benefits him, and isn't necessarily racist, then I guess there is nothing to discuss.

It's so tedious.

And the 9/11 conspriacy theorists are pretty pro-Obama btw.



If Sharron Angle does manage to win, I will always say that if Harry Reid had done what Chris Dodd had done, and perhaps the mayor of Las Vegas had decided to run for the senate seat, I bet he would be ahead by 15 points over Angle. Anti-incumbency is so bad, that Reid is facing this phenomenon.



The arguments by compcon and sb make no sense (what else is new).
The fact that you believe what you on the right want to believe, neither based on any finding of facts, says a lot about why America is in trouble today. The political meme is set by people who don't have a clue as to what they are talking about. They just try to force their prejudices on everyone else by repeating the big lie over and over as if it were the truth.
I wish Obama were an atheist.
As Bill Maher likes to say: " I don't have imaginary friends."


Mike E:

@Comp con

"Religion isn't the issue. "

Too true. The issue is that Obama is a lousy president.



Mike E,

""Religion isn't the issue. "

Too true. The issue is that Obama is a lousy president."

Hillarious. That and the economy.

But we're all racist and stupid if we don't support the messiah, oh sorry Obama and his 1.3 trillion dollar deficit.



Obama can't be a Christian. He thinks he's the messiah.



"If his father had been an exchange student from Germany or Norway, I doubt they'd be calling him a muslim. If Barack had gone to prep school in Ireland and not Indonesia I doubt they'd be calling him a muslim. "

Well yeah. No duh.



If you want to talk about political misperceptions, lets not forget the poll that showed the majority of Obama voters actually believed that the Republicans controlled Congress in 2008. Hard to get much more politically ignorant than that.



"There are a lot of white muslims."

In Bosnia, Kosovo, Albania, and other parts of the Balkans mostly. I should know, I served a year over there. The Albanian diaspora did not occur until the Iron Curtain began to fall. There were not that many muslims in western Europe prior to the 1980s.

You just hate Obama and want to propagate any information that hurts him.

If you maintain that his race helped him (it did to a small extent, but he was "white enough" to not alienate liberal whites), than I maintain that a portion of the opposition opposes him based on racial prejudice. This muslim issue is, imo, one of the manifestations of that.

It's nothing new really, just a different example of Richard Hofstader's Paranoid Style of American Politics. Americans believe crazy crap about the politicians they don't like. Lincoln's opponents thought he was part black, etc...



"lets not forget the poll that showed the majority of Obama voters actually believed that the Republicans controlled Congress in 2008."

Show me that poll. If it was by that hack John Ziegler, then it has no credibility whatsoever.


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