Motivated Reasoning

Rick Perry, I love you.

The Republican candidate raised not-so-subtle doubts about President Barack Obama’s birth certificate this past weekend and I’ve never been so happy to see the birther movement reinvigorated.

Why? Because I recently finished some research on the movement and what factors predict the likelihood to see Obama as born somewhere other than the U.S. Any publicity, for me, is good publicity.

Sitting in an academic journal’s queue for consideration is my study entitled Obama and the Birthers, followed by a colon and then what the study is really about. Yeah, the left side of the colon sounds like the name of a really bad 1960 pop band, but this colon thing is a rule. You have to have a sexy title, followed by a colon, and then the boring descriptive stuff. It’s called titular colinicity. And no, I didn’t it up.  It only sounds like something I’d make up.

The research paper is being considered for publication but I’ll sketch out some of the results here. The study, based on a national survey of 1,240 U.S. adults, found that racism plays a big role in who thinks Obama has invented a Hawaii birth certificate and was secretly born in some other country or, possibly, on some other planet.

That’s the real finding, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

First, you have to look at something called the theory of motivated reasoning, which is an academic way of saying people believe whatever the hell they want to believe – and damn all evidence to the contrary. Once we establish the theoretical base, we can move on to the results.

What I did was toss a whole bunch of factors into a multiple regression model to see what ingredients remain and what ingredients no longer matter. In other words, stuff like education and age and ideology statistically control for one another to find out which really matter and which are mere pretenders to the misperception throne.

The bottom line: those who believed Obama was born outside the U.S. tended to be less educated, female, from the South (ouch), and less knowledgeable about politics. Even with a bunch of other statistical controls, racism still matters. The higher you’re racism score based on an index of several questions, even after controls for your own race, income, all the rest – the more likely you were to say Obama was not born in the U.S.

Here’s some interesting media news. Reading paper newspapers or listening to the radio, those doesn’t matter, but folks who watch television news were significantly less likely to say Obama was born elsewhere. That’s the good news, that TV news moderates this misperception. Too bad I couldn’t break it down to the kind of TV news you watch (Fox, MSNBC, CNN, etc.). But the folks who read blogs, they were more likely to say Obama is not a U.S. citizen. Given the partisan nature of blogs, this isn’t really surprising, though it is kinda sad.

The takeaway? Racism matters. In some earlier unpublished work I’d found racism also plays a significant role in the likelihood of folks in a different national survey to believe Obama was secretly a Muslim. Why? People who don’t like Obama, especially for racial reasons, need a more politically correct way to dislike the guy. Yes, there are lots of policy reasons to fault the president on, but apparently it’s easier to let religion and birthplace act as a surrogate for racist beliefs.

We never seem to learn.

Barry Hollander

Barry Hollander

Former hack at daily newspapers, now hack journalism professor at the University of Georgia, number cruncher and longtime Net user, caffeine addict, writer of weird fiction, and a semi-retired god in an online fantasy world where godhood suits him quite well, thank you very much. He also blogs at