Does Obama’s Muslim-sounding middle name change the way Israelis and Americans judge his policies?
According to a recent study in the journal Political Behavior, the answer is yes, but only for Israelis.
Why ask the question?
Hussein is an unusual name in American politics, one that begs associations with the Muslim world (associations that, some argue, gave rise to “birtherism”). Obama has admitted that his Muslim-sounding name might have stirred some distrust from Israelis, telling Israeli media in 2010, “it may just be the fact that my middle name is Hussein, and that creates suspicion.”
The researchers wanted to know if the president was right in this self assessment.
Researchers at the University of Haifa in Israel and the University of Texas designed an experiment to see if “Barack Hussein Obama” was judged differently than “Barack Obama” among Jewish Israelis, Arab Israelis, and Americans (both pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian).
Each group watched a news clip of the American president speaking with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Abbas. Half the participants saw the caption “Barack Hussein Obama” on the screen while he was speaking. The other half saw “Barack Obama.”
After the video, the participants were asked if they thought Obama showed a preference for Israelis or Palestinians.
The Jewish Israelis in the “Barack Hussein Obama” category thought he was “less pro-Israeli” than those who saw “Barack Obama.”
The Arab Israelis had the same result, but to a different end. The “Hussein” condition made them think Obama would act more fairly to the Arabs.
Americans (Pro-Israel): No effect was noted.
Americans (Pro-Arab): No effect was noted.
Wait, what? How can we explain this answer?
Priming is a psychological concept that explains how verbal or visual cues can, subconsciously, alter perception and effect behavior.
Here’s a quick example of priming from a 2007 New York Times article. While walking down a hallway toward a lab, the subjects of an experiment came across a researcher who had his hands full of many items, including a cup of coffee. The researcher asked the participants if they could help him out and hold the cup as a favor. In one experimental group, the coffee was hot; in the other, it was iced. The temperature of the coffee was the only difference between the scenarios.
In a later survey, the participants in the iced coffee group were more likely to rate a fictitious person as having a cold or selfish personality than the hot coffee group. It is that easy to coax ideas into a person’s mind. In this case, the cue was a physical object. In the Obama experiment, it was a Muslim-sounding middle name.
“Even though the Israeli public has extensive information about the American President and his positions, their opinions can still be swayed by cultural cues, such as a name that in this case is perceived as Arabic,” Israel Waismel-Manor, lead author on the study, surmised in a press release.
What priming does is make certain streams of information more accessible. And, as the authors write in the study, “political judgments depend, in part, on what information is most accessible in a person’s mind.”
In other words, the name “Hussein” can unlock thoughts tying Obama to Muslims, which in turn, changes the perception of the president (just as feeling a cold drink can provoke associations with cold people). Without seeing the name, those thoughts are not as readily brought to view and the association is not made. This Muslim link is probably more salient to Israelis than Americans, which explains why the middle name had no effect for Americans.
What’s important to keep in mind is that while these findings may be statistically significant within this experiment, perceptions of public individuals, in reality, are more complicated. We see priming stimuli constantly — a commercial before a newscast can alter your frame of mind going into a story. What this shows is, in a particular instance, our perceptions of people can change based on contextual cues.
More on priming
In January, researchers at Christian Baylor University in Texas found proximity to religious objects can prime people to make more conservative decisions.