Sunday, September 23, 2012

The psychology of campaign ads plus a bad sign for representative democracy

In the tip jar to Overnight News Digest: Science Saturday (2012 IgNobel Prizes edition) on Daily Kos, I included these four items. The first, from Ohio State University, describes how people tune out ads they don't want to pay attention to. It's a good example of "don't confuse me with the 'facts'; my mind's made up."

Zheng Wang, assistant professor of communication at Ohio State University, demonstrates how she and her colleagues measured physiological responses to viewing presidental campaign ads.
Your Body Doesn’t Lie: People Ignore Political Ads of Candidates They Oppose
September 17, 2012
COLUMBUS, Ohio - A recent study examined people’s bodily responses while watching presidential campaign ads - and discovered another way that people avoid political information that challenges their beliefs.

In the last days of the 2008 campaign, researchers had people watch a variety of actual ads for Republican presidential candidate John McCain and his Democratic rival Barack Obama while the viewers’ heart rates, skin conductance and activation of facial muscles were monitored.

The results showed that partisan participants reacted strongly to ads featuring their favored candidate, but barely responded to ads featuring the rival candidate.

In comparison, people who didn’t favor one candidate over the other showed similar physiological response patterns and intensity to ads for both Obama and McCain.
I admit to doing this myself, as I am already tuning out the ads for the positions I disagree with on some of the ballot proposals. While the above is normal, the next pair of articles should give one pause, as they demonstrate that negative ads are becoming less effective for a paradoxical reason, decreased faith in government. It seems that one can't discourage someone who doesn't believe in government in the first place.

University of Florida: Negative political ads pack punch with voters who trust politicians, UF study shows September 18, 2012
GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Contrary to conventional wisdom, negative political advertisements don’t always work as well as some believe. In part, this is because the audience with which they seem to work best — people who think government works — has been shrinking.

In a study presented in September to the American Political Science Association, University of Florida political science professor Stephen Craig and Paulina S. Rippere, a UF doctoral student and faculty member at Flagler College, examined the effect of negative ads on voters with varying levels of trust and confidence in their political leaders. The findings suggest that political trust and political knowledge can play a role in shaping citizens’ reactions to negative campaign appeals.
University of Arizona: Key Undecided, Independent Voters Seek Different Tone for Campaign
Most American voters have lost confidence in the ability of elected officials to solve the problems facing the U.S., finds a new survey commissioned by the National Institute for Civil Discourse.
National Institute for Civil Discourse
September 14, 2012
WASHINGTON, D.C. – A survey commissioned by the National Institute for Civil Discourse, headquartered at the University of Arizona, indicates that a majority of American voters have lost confidence in the ability of elected leaders to solve the problems facing our country. In fact, fewer than one in 10 American voters has “a great deal” of confidence in elected officials to solve the problems of our country – while twice as many say they have no confidence at all.

“We’ve known for some time how dissatisfied the electorate has become with Congress,” said Carolyn Lukensmeyer, the institute’s executive director. “This is the strongest indication we’ve seen that voters think our Congressional leaders are incapable of solving problems.”

Survey respondents identified several underlying causes for the problem-solving paralysis. Most often cited (90 percent) was politicians’ unwillingness to cross party lines, while 83 percent cited the lack of respectful dialogue as an obstacle to solving problems.
In other words, compromise and civility would be good things. Too bad one of the parties has turned into an authoritarian movement, something that precludes either. If the lack of faith in our elected representatives continues, the authoritarian movement might just--paradoxically--succeed.

As for what things would look like if there were more civility, Northern Arizona University is attempting to provide an example.

Statewide forum sets stage for civil discourse on ballot initiatives
September 18, 2012
Arizona voters from all political affiliations are invited to participate in a public forum simulcast around the state that is designed to bring together people with varying opinions to engage in civil dialogue about three upcoming ballot initiatives.

The event, called “Mapping Arizona’s Future,” is being hosted locally by Northern Arizona University’s Philosophy in the Public Interest and Coconino Community College, in collaboration with the non-partisan organization Project Civil Discourse.

“Being able to discuss matters—even potentially controversial ones—with respect and civility allows for better problem-solving and ultimately higher-leveled thinking,” said Leah Bornstein, president of Coconino Community College.
Good luck, NAU. We'll need it.


  1. That's because the ads have no actual meaning one could react to. No one ad actually SAYS anything. They might as well just feature the images of the candidates and some music but no words.

    That, of course, is deliberate, since any CONCEPT expressed in WORDS can be a) negatively interpreted b) exposed as a lie c) used to show the candidate's hypocrisy by the opposition d) contradict anything and everything the candidate has said or done in the past, thus exposing him as a liar, and on and on. It is SAFER not to SAY anything.

    So folks react to what they perceive as pleasant (the image of the candidate they've resolved to like) and tune out the unpleasant (the image of the one they've resolved to dislike). The slightly more complex variation (for the superintellectuals) is the viewer capable of identifying (from what the voice in the background says) a negative ad and reacting accordingly. ("Candidate B is a bad person" - yeah, the guy in the stuff I tune out as unpleasant must be, boo!)

    1. What should one expect? Commercials are, after all, propaganda. I worked as a tutor from 2001-2007 and one of the reading units I led students through was a critical reading exercise on recognizing propaganda techniques. Every last example came from commercials.

  2. Most American voters have lost confidence in the ability of elected officials to solve the problems facing the U.S

    I think what most American's have lost is the idea that WE are the ones who have the ability to affect the change we really want to see. Instead, it's easier to just throw your hands up and pretend nothing you do matters.

    1. You "sound" like a commenter at The Archdruid Report who has reported that was the result of his survey. That written, you're right on both counts. We have to be the change we want, including affecting the decisions of our elected officials.