Texas Tech Professor's Research Finds Voters' Bodies Recoil at Negative Political Advertising; Brain Remembers Negative Messages

As the great race begins, professor discusses physiological impact of negative campaign advertising.

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 voters.

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 ad messages.

"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 remembered.

"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 john.davis@ttu.edu.

CONTACT: Samuel D. Bradley, assistant professor, College of Mass Communications Texas Tech University, (806) 742-3385 ext. 273, or sam.bradley@ttu.edu.