Friday, August 17, 2012

Dirty Rats: How Feelings Drive Political Thinking

For a long time, people reasoned their way to the conclusion that they are rational beings who only make decisions after considering the pros and cons of each option. Over the past several decades, though, scientists have found limited support for this intuitive theory.

Rather, we have more immediate, gut-level emotional reactions to stimuli before we think about the stimuli's characteristics. Social psychologist Bob Zajonc demonstrated support for this hypothesis by flashing smiling or frowning faces on a computer screen faster than the human eye could notice and then asking people to rate how positive or negative Chinese ideographs were. Participants who rated ideographs after being subliminally primed with smiling faces evaluated the ideographs more positively than after being subliminally primed with the frowning faces.

Moral psychologist, and author of the New York Times bestseller The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, Jonathan Haidt conducted similar studies. Instead of priming people with frowning faces, he and his colleagues primed people to associate the feeling of disgust with different stimuli. Again, when people were primed with disgust, their evaluations became more negative. However, Haidt and colleagues went further. They found that negative feelings led to harsher moral judgments

Machiavellian campaign strategists raise their eyebrows at findings like these. They see a potential tool to help win some votes. Perhaps strategists were aware of this body of research and design ads trying to get voters to associate negative things, like Rats, with opposition candidates, like Al Gore in 2000.

And, associating a violent criminal with Michael Dukakis in 1988. Or, associating nuclear war with Barry Goldwater in 1964.

It's not clear that any of these ads were effective (or not), but there is psychological evidence suggesting that they could lead voters to have more negative feelings towards the targeted candidate. Furthermore, it's not clear that some negative feelings associated with one candidate will do anything to change someone's preference in the voting booth.

At the Stanford Summer Institute in Political Psychology, political scientist Milt Lodge presented research addressing these very questions. In a series of studies, he and his colleagues subliminally primed participants with positive, negative, or neutral words (much like that in the Zajonc studies, and possibly similar to the Al Gore BureaucRATS ad) before asking participants to read a strong argument about a specific issue, and then later asked them to report their attitude on that issue.

When people were primed with the positive words, they evaluated the argument more favorably. If they agreed with the argument prior to the priming, they agreed even more after the priming. When people were primed with the negative words, they evaluated the argument less favorably. If they agreed with the argument prior to the priming, they agreed less after the priming. Furthermore, these subliminal primes had lasting effects, too, suggesting that commercials shown well before people ever get into a voting booth may affect their behavior once they do enter the voting booth.

So, what Machiavellians need to know from this work is that if they can just manipulate people's emotions so that they associate "good" with the people on Team Machiavelli and "bad" with all others, then they can win friends and influence people.

Wait. Not so fast. The manipulation of the sort used in the studies described here are of dubious legality. At present (August 17, 2012), there are no federal laws banning subliminal priming in advertisements in the United States, but there are a number of private-sector regulating bodies that prohibit it.

That doesn't mean you can't use this affective primacy principle to your advantage. It just means you need to be more creative. Consider adding a smiling face to your commercials, images from some widely loved cartoons (ahem!), and a few jokes at the beginning of any speeches you may be giving. Perhaps, you'll warm up your audience and use a basic component of your audience's psychology to help the presentation go a little more enjoyably for the both of you.

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