Texas Tech Professor's Research Finds Voters' Bodies Recoil at Negative Political
Advertising; Brain Remembers Negative Messages
December 12, 2007
As the great race begins, professor discusses physiological impact of negative campaign
They’re aversive. They’re arousing. They’re fairly well-remembered.
They’re negative political ads, and one Texas Tech University researcher has found
scientific evidence that they do have a physiological and psychological effect on
With one study predicting an unprecedented $4.5 billion expected for political advertising
during this next election cycle, American voters should get ready to feel uncomfortable
and remember a lot of mudslinging sentiments – even if they’re incorrect, said Samuel
Bradley, an advertising professor at Texas Tech’s College of Mass Communication.
"The question was simple." Bradley said "Are negative political ads unpleasant enough
to engage a person’s emotional circuitry? The data show that negative ads do indeed
engage emotional circuits involved in helping humans avoid unpleasantness."
In a study published in the December 2007 Journal of Advertising, Bradley found that
negative political advertising makes the body want to turn away physically, but the
mind remembers negative messages indiscriminately and sometimes incorrectly.
Bradley, with James R. Angelini of the University of Delaware, and Sungkyoung Lee
from Indiana University, began their research in the spring of 2003 and used undergraduate
students at Indiana University.
The researchers focused on the preattentative reflex of the eye known as the startle
reflex. Those exposed to negative political advertising experienced larger reflex
reactions indicating and a desire to move away than when exposed to positive or neutral
"This is the very beginning of the fight-or-flight response," Bradley says. "The body
is saying, ‘This is bad.’ So the preattentive reflex is bigger and the body starts
preparing to move away."
But people remember negative ads because the brain finds them arousing, he said. Since
viewing the ads isn’t a life-or-death situation, the brain has time to store the messages.
Sometimes, the brain can even make up the negative message it only thought it saw.
Although some researchers blame the media and negative political ads for decreasing
political participation, Bradley said more research is needed before that can be demonstrated.
"This is a single step on a journey of a thousand miles toward understanding what
negative political advertising does to voters," he said. "We’ve made some progress
by showing there’s greater physiological arousal and that these ads are indiscriminately
"That’s what you want if you’re the attacker in the ad."
For a copy of the research, titled Psychophysiological and Memory Effects of Negative
Political Ads: Aversive, Arousing, and Well Remembered, please contact the John Davis
at (806) 742-3601 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
CONTACT: Samuel D. Bradley, assistant professor, College of Mass Communications Texas
Tech University, (806) 742-3385 ext. 273, or email@example.com.