Capgras and the President

March 28th, 2011

Pascal Boyer has a brilliant post up at the International Cognition and Culture Institute blog on the psychology of birtherism — the belief that “Barack Obama was not born a U.S. citizen.” He likens it to the psychiatric condition of Capgras Syndrome, which manifests itself as the persistent belief that one’s family and friends have been replaced by replicas, clones, aliens, spies, or some other form of impostor.

Capgras happens when people’s ability to recognize others emotionally, as well as visually, breaks down. When I see Mr. Improbable — or even Milo — I’m not only processing visual input, I’m having an emotional reaction to seeing the man (or dog) I know and love; Boyer describes it as a “specific emotional signature.” Without that signature, all I am seeing is a man who looks exactly like my husband, but who stirs in me none of the feelings that I associate with him. Hence, my brain conjures an explanation, however bizarre, to explain the discrepancy between my eyes and my heart.

Turning to birtherism, Boyer writes:

[I]n the spirit of a pop psychology of the masses, let me offer the diagnosis that a large segment of the US population may be experiencing something somewhat similar to the Capgras delusion. That is, when they switch on their TVs and watch the news, they see someone who has all the trappings of a President, acts like a President, lives where the President lives, is treated by everybody as the President, signs bills like the President, gives a State of the Union address to Congress every year like the President? But these people at the same time have a clear and vivid intuition that:

This man is not the President

Now, once you have the intuition, in the same way as in Capgras, all sorts of strange beliefs may seem almost plausible, if they provide a good explanation for why this particular person, with all the right details, still does not quite ring true. In the “two-step model”, Capgras patients come up with alien abductions and suchlike to account for the Unheimlichkeit of their situation. More reasonably (these things are relative), the birthers come up with a conspiracy that this particular American is a Kenyan, that he forged his birth-certificate, that he made up an entire family history, that the entire world media agreed to cover all this up.

Interestingly, Boyer doesn’t attribute the gut feeling that Obama cannot be President to simple racism. Although he doesn’t say it, he implies that a more stereotypically “black” President might cause less dissonance in the public mind. Barack Hussein Obama, by contrast, is biracial, with some family roots in the Muslim world; has a deeper academic background and less political experience than nearly any other president; and generally tends to confound categories and stereotypes.

I think Boyer’s point may well be right for a core of true-believer birthers. I have to wonder if some people feel unsure of the President’s citizenship not because they are fully convinced by birther arguments, nor because they cannot have what they think of as an appropriately presidential emotional reaction to Barack Obama, but simply because the media continues to report on the story. Without having the time, ability, or motivation to research the president’s citizenship, many folks may not have a strong opinion one way or the other, but assume that if there is smoke — as there continues to be, and will be until the end of Mr. Obama’s presidency — that there must be some fire, somewhere.


One Response to “Capgras and the President”

  1. Jim on March 29, 2011 2:13 pm

    I think he’s far off the mark.

    In my experience with an albeit limited number of birthers, the view isn’t that “This man is not the President”.

    Their view is “This man is not the *legitimate* President.” and that puts a very different light on it.

    The point that he “has all the trappings of a President, acts like a President, lives where the President lives, is treated by everybody as the President, signs bills like the President, gives a State of the Union address to Congress every year like the President” isn’t relevant.

    Just like those on the left who cried about how Bush “stole the election” for eight years, the birthers see Obama’s actions but refuse to accept that he has the legitimacy to act.

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