The Double Negative

Feature / by William Wells /

How can evolution explain both the appeal and recent failings of negative campaigning?

Illustration by Joe Kloc.

From Lyndon Johnson’s notorious “Peace, Little Girl” television ad to Hillary Clinton’s hypothetical 3am phone call, negative campaigning has long been a fallback position for political candidates. This year’s US presidential election was supposed to be different, with both candidates pledging to remain positive and civil. And yet, recently, John McCain in particular has ramped up the negativity, resorting to dual specters — Bill Ayers and socialism — in an attempt to get elected. Barack Obama, by contrast, has remained relatively calm and on message. But a closer look suggests that both candidates are relying on negative forces, and that the potent effect of those forces might be explained by our primitive past.

Negative campaigning plays off deep-rooted pathways in the human brain, which may explain its effectiveness as a tactic and its lure to politicians. Humans evolved to remember negative events not because they faced electoral choices but because they faced possible death. For example, “it matters exactly what the snake looks like — if you see it again, you can respond,” says Elizabeth Kensinger, a neuroscientist at Boston College who studies the strength of negative memories. “There is this threat to survival from negative emotions. What the chocolate cake looks like is not going to be so important.”

Negative campaigning, at its simplest, is an attempt to exploit this evolutionary response and make a strong impression on a distracted voting public. Indeed, in Kensinger’s controlled laboratory experiments, negative words create the strongest memories. “When things are negative is when people feel that they vividly remember the experience in a really crisp way,” she says. Katherine Kinzler of the University of Chicago has found that negativity also gets priority when remembering faces and actions. She thinks the responses are hardwired by evolution rather than learned via culture, because the phenomena are present even in infants. An ancient origin is further suggested by brain studies: Fear and negativity light up the amygdala, a primeval part of the brain.

But how, if at all, does the negative-memory bias apply to political campaigns? When someone enters a voting booth, could the specificity of their negative memories sway them to vote in a particular direction? Answering these questions requires an understanding of how people make decisions.

Advertisers, like neuroscientists, started out with a so-called cognitive model of decision making — a model driven by logic, rationality, and the precise weighing of options. But this model “has been thrown out completely,” says David Bonney, a former psychology researcher who has conducted studies for huge advertising firms such as DDB on the impact of emotional advertising. “Emotion, we’ve realized in the last decade, drives all decision making.”

The human brain, faced with a daily onslaught of information, uses emotion to tag certain events as worth remembering and using for decision-making. A parking space is forgotten; a death is remembered. Negative words and actions probably have a greater impact because they elicit stronger emotions.

For those creating emotion-based political advertising, a simple option is fear. “A lot of communication just goes for the amygdala,” says Bonney. “If you have a really scary story, that may work.” This has certainly been the McCain approach. But a more successful strategy is to create an emotionally undulating story, such as a negative followed by resolution. In the 1964 “Peace, Little Girl” advertisement, for example, in which Armageddon is seemingly imminent, a nuclear explosion is followed by a reassuring appearance of our savior, Lyndon Johnson.

This successful use of resolution highlights the nuances of using fear to win voters’ favor. Based on physiology alone, fear should induce a classic fight-or-flight response. So “why don’t voters withdraw? How do they move into engagement?” asks political scientist Paul Martin of the University of Virginia. The answer, he says, “is something cultural — culture identifies what we are supposed to do in this situation.” A perceived problem with the country’s wellbeing convinces nationalistic voters that they need to get involved to help fix the problem, thus appealing to an innate sense of conflict resolution.

The current financial meltdown could be the negative force that Obama’s campaign had previously lacked.

George Marcus, a political scientist at Williams College who studies the role of emotions in politics, also focuses on what lies downstream of negative campaigning. He believes that negative campaigning has the potential to produce different emotional responses, each with very different brain pathways and evolutionary explanations. The first of these responses, anger, causes people to shut off novel information inputs and commit to their desired candidate with more fervor. This is useful evolutionarily, Marcus says, because some kinds of collective action require resolve. In ancient times, the hunting party needed anger to generate a singular focus on spearing the bison; more recently, anger helped to get the US to Baghdad.

Negative messages can also be used to create anxiety, which produces a different outcome. “Anxiety is, ‘What is going on here? I don’t know; I better find out,’” says Marcus. “If you are in a novel situation, the brain needs to be more receptive to the thinking mind and be careful of the automatic mind.” An anxious, more receptive mind may be convinced to change political sides.

Fear and anxiety have both had starring turns in the run-up to this year’s US presidential election, and both campaigns have had their ugly moments. And yet, in the last three weeks, it is the McCain-Palin campaign that has turned resoundingly negative and Barack Obama who seems to be simply dodging the blows, counterpunching only rarely, and building a substantial lead in the process. A simpler, fear-based campaign appears to be losing to one that has no use for negativity. Or does it?

The current financial meltdown could be the negative force that Obama’s campaign had previously lacked. Suddenly, the change we could believe in but never remember very well has a new life: as a potential resolution to a real-world danger. For Obama, uncertainty and anxiety could not have come at a better time.

At different times during our evolutionary history, conditions have favored either anger-fueled resolve or anxiety-fueled contemplation. Election cycles may be similarly bistable. We will find out in just a week, when millions of voters, with their evolutionarily inherited issues onboard, walk into polling stations around the country and vote.


Originally published October 28, 2008

Tags decision making democracy neuroscience politics theory

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