Interesting article in yesterday's Post talking about the role of emotion vs. reason in how voters decide to vote and evaluate political candidates. There's not all that much new here (I remember learning most of this in grad school), but it was pretty nice to see a summary of some little-appreciate political psychology the focus of a story in the Post. The article recounts a classic 1935 real-world experiment in which voters receiving rational appeals for the Social party turned out to vote at rates 35% higher than normal whereas those receiving emotional appeals (“We beg you in the name of those early memories and spring-time hopes to support the Socialist ticket in the coming elections!”) turned out 50% higher. George Marcus, political psychologist extraordinaire, sums things up thus:
Modern research confirms that unless political ads
evoke emotional responses, they don't have much effect. Voters, he
explained, need to be emotionally primed in some way before they will
What does this mean?
The research is of importance to politicians for obvious reasons — and
partly explains the enduring attraction of negative advertising — but
it is also important to voters, because it suggests that the reason
candidates seem appealing often has little to do with their ideas.
Political campaigns are won and lost at a more emotional and subtle
I rememeber one of the coolest (if one can apply that term to a political science article) political scientice articles I read years ago was one in which people watched a debate with no sound and the investigators found that the viewers formed strong emotional reactions simply on the basis of the candidates facial displays.
The Post article uses this research to explain the recent victory of Anthony Fenty in the Washington DC Democratic mayoral primary:
The Fenty machine essentially took advantage of what the Allentown
study found: It is comparatively difficult to persuade anyone to change
their mind on an issue. What works much better, because it influences
people at an emotional and subtle level, is to get people to focus on a
different issue — the one where the candidate is the strongest.
agenda-setting effect is what we are talking about,” said Nicholas A.
Valentino, a political psychologist at the University of Michigan at
Ann Arbor. “The ability of a candidate not to tell people how to feel
about an issue, but which issue they should focus on — that is the
struggle of most modern campaign managers.”
“Campaigns have been
much more successful at shifting people's attentions to different
issues rather than shifting people's positions,” he added.
I really enjoyed seeing such a nice exposition of actual political science in a newspaper article. When it comes to politics, like life, emotional arguments seem to hold sway (e.g., bad guys want to kill us, let's torture them!). Of course, it should be noted that neuroscientists know believe that emotional response is essential to “rational” decisions. Persons who have damage to the prefrontal cortex of their brain (that's right, the last part to become fully myelinated) are often left with flat affect and a complete inability to make reasonable decisions despite their cognitive powers being left intact. It is a little old now, but I learned all about this here.