Negative Polarity
The effects of mudslinging on the political process may be more profound than hitherto believed

Much has been made of the use of negative advertisements in political campaigns, but until a UCLA political scientist conducted the first rigorous social science research into the subject, little could be said with certainty about the effects of such ads. Applying a technique he had used successfully in studies of television newscasts, UCLA professor of political science Shanto Iyengar decided to research the issue in California during the 1990, 1992 and 1993 local, statewide and national campaigns. “We wanted to know whether political ads are persuasive, whether voters get meaningful information from them and how all of the negativity that comes from these ads affects the political process,” says Iyengar, whose conclusions were published in Going Negative: How Political Advertisements Shrink and Polarize the Electorate (Simon & Schuster, 1995), written with MIT political scientist Stephen Ansolabehere.

Previous research on the subject concluded that negative ads have little impact. But Iyengar, observing that these investigations relied on surveys and artificial settings (not to mention the fact that campaigns, despite these conclusions, continued to spend millions of dollars on negative ads), designed a study both more rigorous and more “naturalistic” than its predecessors.
Rather than taking a poll, the researchers conducted experiments in two shopping malls — one in Republican dominant Orange County, the other in Democrat heavy West Los Angeles. Registered voters were paid $15 and shown a 10 minute videotape of a recent local newscast. They were told only that the study was looking at selective perception of news programs. In the course of the programs, however, Iyengar had inserted his own homespun political commercials. Because the experiments were conducted during the campaign season and the ads appeared authentic, the test subjects assumed they were simply part of the newscast.
The subjects were randomly assigned to two groups. During the newscast, one group would see an ad with a positive message; the other would see the same ad, with one exception: The words had been changed to make its message negative. For example, a commercial purported to have been sponsored by the campaign of 1990 Republican gubernatorial candidate Pete Wilson said, in its original form, “When federal bureaucrats asked for permission to drill for oil off the coast of California, then Senator Pete Wilson said, ‘No’” -- a position presumed popular with a majority of the state’s electorate. The negative version, now attributed to the campaign of Democratic candidate Dianne Feinstein and shown to the other group in the research cohort, simply changed the “no” to a “yes.”
“This allowed us to isolate the negative component,” Iyengar explains. “Otherwise, one could argue that it had been the visuals, the music or something else that affected the viewer. But these two ads were practically carbon copies.” At the same time, because subjects were unaware that they would be asked about the commercials, the quality of their attention had not been artificially heightened. “In that sense, our results are conservative,” Iyengar says.
After the newscasts, the test subjects were asked about the candidates, their feelings about the political process and, finally, about what they recalled from the ads they had seen. While few remembered them clearly, the ads definitely had an impact. In fact, among Iyengar’s most disturbing findings was that negative advertising drives down voter turnout — and that consultants intentionally use ads for that very purpose. “Rather than trying to convince viewers to change their votes, the ads are designed to make supporters of the other candidate reconsider the decision to vote at all,” says Iyengar.
The researchers found that ads are most effective when the message is consistent with people’s preconceptions. They also found that advertising does help to make voters aware of the candidates’ positions on the issues. Overall, however, they concluded that the harm done by negative ads — particularly in terms of increasing voter cynicism, polarization of the electorate and bad blood among legislators who need to work together when the campaign is over — renders them a threat to the democratic process.
Iyengar has been marrying psychological research techniques with political phenomena since 1980, when he used the same paradigm for a study of people’s perceptions of TV newscasts. He notes that the burgeoning field of political psychology now includes many investigators who are designing studies that combine the realistic settings favored by political scientists with the tightly controlled experiments used by social psychologists. “Political scientists have traditionally approached an issue such as this by taking a poll,” Iyengar says, “and that’s very limiting. On the other hand, the typical psychological experiment on this subject would gather a group of college sophomores in a room, which has no real connection to what’s going on in the typical American living room.”

— D.G.

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