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

  1. Cliff Green

    Barry, I appreciate your hard work in this research; I really do. But is anyone really surprized that racism plays a significant role in the minds of the birthers?

  2. Barry Hollander

    I doubt anyone is surprised but it’s nice to have it verified with hard data rather than relying on anecdotes. I was mildly surprised that racism remained a significant factor even after controlling for all those demographics and partisanship/ideology. But your point is well taken. Sometimes we dare research the obvious.

    I don’t think people sit and think, I hate Obama because he’s black, but that’s politically incorrect so I’m gonna go with the Muslim/birthplace thing. It’s much more subtle than that, working at the subconscious level. People with more racist beliefs latch onto this birth/religious thing because they want to believe the worst in him. Yes, racism is at the root of much of it, but it’s not overt racism.

  3. Preconceived notions are hard to dislodge. They don’t actually arrive before conception, but pretty soon after birth, especially in families that put much store into keeping the off-spring close to home. The boogie man comes in handy and, if he’s got some easily remembered characteristics, so much the better.
    It’s really hard to convince the people targeted as boogie men that they just happen to be a convenient icon, probably because they have their own preconceived notions. That their’s are routinely validated by experience makes the notions even harder to dislodge. Besides, being aware of antagonism and shying away from it is better than being taken by surprise. There are some practical benefits to being a pessimist. On the other hand, like looking for needles in haystacks that haven’t been built, looking for antagonisms that aren’t there is a waste of energy and time.

  4. Jingle Davis

    Hi, Barry. Thank you for introducing me to the concept of titular colinicity. in the article immediately following yours, there is a book title in the first graf that employs not one but two phrases separated by colons. is this double titular colinicity or titular double colinicity?

    are there any non-fiction books (or for that matter, learned articles) being published today that do not feature titular colinicity? i am, myself, writing a book for uga press that is titled island time: an illustrated history of st. simons island, georgia. it’s good to know i’m right there in the middle of the mainstream re titular colinicity. i guess.

    Good article. Write more.

  5. Barry Hollander

    I think double titular colonicity, which is kinda like double secret probation. Not everyone does it. I’m looking now at a paper copy of Public Opinion Quarterly and of the five main research articles only one of them includes a colon in the title. But in a more recent (warning, PhDweeb alert) Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly, six of 10 articles have colons in them. I think non-fiction book titles have really gone to the colon of “Sexy Attention Getter: What The Book Is Really All About.”

  6. Thank you for putting good effort into this sad state of affairs. I suppose it is useful if only to confirm suspiscions. Please tell me: Is motivated reasoning the same as confirmation bias, or is the latter a type of the former?

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