Death panels. Harry and Louise. Lyin’ Ted. Crooked Hillary. Tricky Dick. Washington insider. The Dean Scream.
There’s no shortage of insults, mudslinging and distortions in politics. And no matter how often candidates swear they’ll run a positive, issues-oriented campaign, negativity seeps in.
Why? Because our brains respond to it.
UC Davis psychology professor Alison Ledgerwood studies framing effects, or how people process information based on how it’s presented to them.
Say a candidate proposes a new jobs policy — Jobs Policy A. You don’t know much about it. But one of the first things you hear is that it will save 60 percent of manufacturing jobs. Your friend, meanwhile, is told that 40 percent of jobs will be lost.
It’s the same policy, with the same results, so all else being equal, you and your friend should have a similar outlook on it, right? What research actually finds is that you are more likely to respond favorably, because the information about it has been framed in terms of success. Whereas your friend, who has been thinking of the policy in terms of failure, is not a fan.
The power of a negative frame
Ledgerwood and her colleagues have also found that a negative frame is much more persistent, or “stickier,” than a positive one. If you come at an issue negatively, but are later reminded of the policy's positive aspects, you will still think it's a bust. And if you start out thinking favorably about the policy, but are reminded of its downsides, your positive perception will be swept away and a negative one will take its place.
Once we think the proverbial glass is half empty, it’s hard to remember that it’s also half full.
In other words, our brains are hard-wired to seek out and remember negative information. That fact isn’t lost on politicians and political parties.
A few examples from over the years:
“Tricky Dick,” a nickname associated with Richard Nixon that emerged during his 1950 campaign for Senate, dogged his entire political career, from his presidential faceoff with John Kennedy to Watergate.
The phrase “death panels” almost ground the Affordable Care Act to a halt.
An attempt to undermine John Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaign by impugning his record in Vietnam was so effective — and deceptive — that the term “swiftboating” now refers to any untrue negative political attack.
And the current president has cultivated his own negative campaigning style, relentlessly portraying his opponents with repetitive negative nicknames: Crooked Hillary. Low Energy Jeb. Lyin’ Ted. Fake News.
The beauty of negative attacks — from a campaign standpoint — is that they influence everyone. Even a candidate’s supporters will be affected by negative attacks, Ledgerwood and her collaborators have found. Once a negative idea has been planted, it’s very hard to shake.
So, it’s reasonable to expect that candidates in upcoming debates will be ready with negative frames — frames they hope will stick to their opponents, and our brains. But we don’t have to be held hostage by the constant negativity.