Caveman Politics

How evolution impacts politics.

Why Are Negative Ads Positive for Voters?

Attack ads can galvanize powerful emotional responses making us more informed.

There’s certainly no shortage of mudslinging in this year’s elections. If you believe the vitriol, among other things, one candidate killed a person with cancer for economic gain and the other brazenly ignored security for a US ambassador leaving him to be killed by terrorists.

The numbers show the mud is flying and smart citizens need to button up the raincoats and snap on the galoshes. According to the Washington Post, as of October 9 President Barack Obama’s campaign had spent 80 percent (or $174 million) of its advertising budget on negative advertising and Governor Mitt Romney had spent 84 percent (or $71 million) on the same tactic. And this does not include the massive spending of the Democratic and Republican party committees, which have devoted more than 80 percent of their $68 million in advertising to “attacking” the opponent, and interest groups, which have spent even more money than the candidates and parties and whose advertising is almost exclusively negative. This is simply ongoing evidence of trends showing greater negativity in political advertising in recent elections than in the 1960s-1980s. Moreover, the political consultants will tell you they use negative ads because they work.

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Visit the Attack Ad Hall of Fame

Evidence suggests we are affected by attack ads. To save face we often tell our friends that we dislike them, but in reality the public’s perception of negative advertising is nuanced. For instance, one study showed that 70 percent of people believe candidates have a right to point out the weaknesses of their opponent, but about 45 percent say doing so is unethical.

More importantly, research suggests negative ads not only contain more information than positive ads, they also are more memorable and useful. For instance, one study found that voters experiencing elevated levels of negative advertising were more knowledgeable about issues and more likely to use issue knowledge in vote choice than voters with little exposure to negative advertising. In other words, the voters who experienced greater negativity were more like what many of us think of as “ideal citizens” than voters who experienced more “gentlemanly” races.

Explain This, Mr. “Caveman Politics.”

Evolutionary theorists make strong arguments about the value of negative information. They suggest that mistaking a threat as a non-threat can be much more costly in evolutionary terms than the reverse. For example, a prey animal ignoring screeches of fear from fleeing group members runs the risk of encountering the source of the fear and possibly losing its life, while the same animal ignoring grunts of contentment from feasting group members runs the risk of missing a satisfying meal but not the risk of immediately losing its life.

Paying attention to negative information, then, is often more likely to facilitate survival than paying attention to positive information. Research indicates that this negativity bias—more formally, the tendency for individuals to weigh negative information more heavily than positive information—is exhibited across a broad range of domains, to the point of near universality.

One such domain is human behavior in groups. Evolutionary theorists argue that human group behavior, which includes enduring and highly interconnected alliances of small numbers of individuals, evolved to promote human survival and reproduction in the harsh ancestral environment. Because human ancestors benefitted so greatly from group action, evolutionary theorists suggest that humans should be especially sensitive to violations of group expectations. So, for example, when facing a social decision, an individual should be more sensitive to negative information about a potential violator of group-related expectations than to positive information about a potential adherent to group-related expectations, especially violations by group leaders.

So the prevalence of negative advertising in political campaigns is explainable in evolutionary terms. We are interested in negative political information because we pay a cost as citizens if leaders of our group (i.e., community, state, or nation) take advantage of us by mismanaging, misappropriating, or stealing our group resources. Not only that, but we act more like informed, interested citizens when we are exposed to negative political information.

So pull out the raincoats and galoshes, it’s time to get dirty in the election mudslinging.

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If you can’t get enough negative advertising (and haven’t gotten enough this year), besides the Attack Ad Hall of Fame you can also visit the “The Living Room Candidate” exhibit on “Fear” ads at the Museum of the Moving Image. The museum is an online exhibition presenting more than 300 TV commercials from every election year since 1952, when the first campaign TV ads aired.

Visiting the various websites with attack ads, my favorites are the 1952 Democratic attack ad on Eisenhower and Reagan's 1984 "bear" ad. What’s your “favorite” attack ad?  

If you enjoyed this post, please share it by email or on Facebook or Twitter. Follow me on Twitter @GreggRMurray to see other interesting research. 

Image: All rights reserved by Erica_Marshall

Gregg R. Murray, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Texas Tech University.

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