Texas Tech Professor: Voters’ Bodies Recoil, Brain Remembers Negative Messages
October 15, 2008
Negative campaign ads do have physiological and psychological impact.
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
As Sens. Barack Obama and John McCain duke it out in campaign ads and debates during
the final push to Election Day, 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.
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
"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."
The researchers focused on the preattentative reflex known as the eyeblink startle
Those exposed to negative political advertising experienced larger reflex reactions
indicating 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
"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) 742-2136 or firstname.lastname@example.org
. For more on Bradley, visit experts.ttu.edu/browse/profile/429.
CONTACT: Samuel D. Bradley, assistant professor, College of Mass Communications Texas
, (806) 742-3385 ext. 273, or email@example.com.