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Do Political Smear Tactics Work?

The impact of political smears

According to new research, politicians gain an edge when they use smear tactics against their opponents.

We all have seen some pretty ridiculous advertisements leading up to elections. When asked, many people report finding these commercials ridiculous, and hoping that politicians would stick to the issues. But yet, outlandish claims against political opponents remain a staple of U.S. politics.

But do they work?

Research by (newly minted) Michigan State University psychology professor Spee Kosloff and colleagues put this to the test. Their findings are incredibly interesting.

In several studies, participants were exposed to either political smears of Barack Obama (i.e., he is Muslim) or John McCain (i.e.,he is senile). In some studies, Obama's race was made salient, as was McCain's age.

When Mccain's age was salient, people were more open to endorsing political smears against McCain. Likewise, when Obama's race was salient, people were more open to endorsing smears against Obama. This was especially the case for people who were undecided prior to the election.

Interestingly, these results also held 1 year after the election was over.

Assuming that acceptance of these slurs is related to voting choice, this suggests that in some cases, political slandering works. And not only that, it works on the group that is perhaps most important in swinging an election: politically undecided individuals.

We may report hating these slanderous statements. But, it appears that they might make up our minds for us when we haven't already.

*of course I do not think Obama being reportedly Muslim is slanderous, but others do, and that is why it was considered a smear remark. Also, Obama is openly Christian, making this statement untrue. In fairness, it is obvious that McCain also is not senile.


Kosloff, S., Greenberg, J., Schmader, T., Dechesne, M., & Weise, D. Smearing the opposition: Implicit and explicit stigmatiztion of the 2008 U.S. Presidential candidates and the current U.S. President. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 139, 383-398.