How the negative trumps the positive in politics

Publication Date

Negatively framed political attitudes (“I don’t like Obama”) are stronger than positively framed attitudes (“I like Romney”), and that effect is most pronounced when people have the motivation and ability to think carefully.

That's according to a study published in the latest issue of the British Journal of Social Psychology by Psychology Professor George Bizer.

Bizer and his co-authors, Jamie Luguri '12 (his former thesis student, now at Yale University) and Iris Žeželj (University of Belgrade) presented participants with information about two fictitious candidates for a local government board. One was presented as a conservative and the other as a liberal.

Some participants were asked if they "supported" or "opposed" the liberal candidate, and some were asked if they "supported" or "opposed" the conservative. When the candidates were vying for a local government board, participants who were led to frame their opinions negatively – regardless of their underlying preference – expressed more certainty about their attitudes than did participants who framed their opinions positively. When the candidates were vying for a distant government board, the effect did not emerge.

Subsequent research produced similar results.

"Our research showed that framing an opinion in terms of opposition yields stronger attitudes than does framing it in terms of support," said Bizer, who has taught at Union since 2005. "Surprisingly, this bias was stronger among people who were able and motivated to think about their opinions. Among people for whom ability and motivation to think were restricted, the effect disappeared."

Bizer said the study underscores the impact of framing opinions negatively, suggesting that such negativity bias is most impactful, perhaps counter-intuitively, among people who would be least likely to want to be biased -- people who think most carefully about their opinions.

The results will do little to discourage politicians from going negative to get their message across.

"Look at all the negative campaigning," Bizer said. Everybody says they don't like it, yet it seems to be more effective."

Bizer's study is gaining some traction in the media. To read a report in The Daily Telegraph, click here.