Politicians are often chastised for going negative, but research suggests there’s a simple reason politicians adopt this strategy: Negative campaigning works.
A recent study by Union College associate professor of psychology George Bizer found negative beliefs resonate more deeply than positive beliefs. In other words, people express negative opinions such as “I don’t like Obama” more strongly than positive sentiments such as “I like Romney.”
“This research corroborates how powerful the negative stuff is,” Bizer said. “It speaks to why politicians rely so heavily on negative campaigning. The negative framing is stronger than the positive framing.”
He noted that voters on both the extreme right and extreme left are extremely negative about the other side.
The study, “When are support and opposition not opposites?” was recently published in the British Journal of Social Psychology and discusses several experiments conducted by Bizer.
In the first, 115 customers at an Albany coffee shop read about two fictitious candidates, Chris Bresden and Rick Smith, vying for a position on a local government board; Bresden was described as liberal and Smith as conservative. Participants then indicated which candidate they supported, and how certain they were of their beliefs. Some participants were told the candidates were competing for a seat on the Albany County Commission, while others were told they were running for a seat on the Salt Lake County Commission in Utah. Half of the participants were asked whether they supported or opposed Bresden, and half were asked whether they supported or opposed Smith.
Another experiment asked 106 students at Union College to read statements from two fictitious people being interviewed for a job as Director of Dining Services; one candidate had more food-service experience, while the other had more experience on campus. After the students read the profiles, they were asked to indicate their attitudes toward one candidate using the same measures in the first experiment; they then indicated how strong their opinions were, how intensely they held their opinions and how personally relevant their opinions were. Some participants were told the candidates were interviewing for a position at Union, while the other participants were told they were interviewing at another school.
A similar experiment was conducted with students at the University of Belgrade in Serbia, who were asked to read the profiles of two judges vying for a position on the Serbian Supreme Court.
In all three experiments, participants expressed negative opinions more strongly and with more certainty than participants who were asked to frame their opinions in a positive light. Researchers also found that participants who were allowed to think carefully about the candidates had stronger opinions than participants who didn’t.
To Bizer, this finding is counter-intuitive. He said he and his fellow researchers went into the experiment believing people were more likely to become more certain of their opinions when their ability to evaluate their ideas was more restricted. But the opposite turned out to be true.
“Getting people to think about their own opinions triggers something that makes them more certain about their beliefs and opinions,” Bizer said.
Bizer also found that this “certainty effect” went away if the election being discussed, such as the one in Salt Lake, wasn’t perceived by participants as relevant to their lives.
The study in the British Journal of Social Psychology is Bizer’s third paper on what psychologists refer to as the “valence framing effect,” a term that describes how leading people to frame a preference negatively yields stronger attitudes than leading people to frame that same preference positively.
Bizer said evolutionary psychologists have suggested people are wired to respond more strongly to negativity, because it’s more dangerous to be wrong about something bad than something good.
“Psychologists are really interested in attitude, because it predicts behavior,” Bizer said. “Some attitudes are strong, and some are weak. Psychologists are interested in what makes a particular attitude important.”