Dirty campaign commercials backfire, says visiting prof

By Kristen Lauletti

David Redlawsk, a professor of political science at Rutgers University, talked about why people often support their favorite candidates unwaveringly. (Tim Lee/Staff Photographer)

Students and faculty packed the Library Auditorium on Thursday, Oct. 27 to listen to guest speaker David Redlawsk, director of Eagleton Center for Public Interest Polling and professor of political science at Rutgers University in New Brunswick.

The forum, “Feelings Drive Thinking: Motivated Reasoning and Candidate Evaluation in American Politics,” focused on why it is so difficult for people’s initial conceptions to be changed.

“What should happen when you learn new information that challenges old evaluations?” Redlawsk asked.

As the audience pondered this, Redlawsk explained that campaign commercials attempt to sway people’s initial thoughts about political candidates.

The catch, he said, is this: People who originally favor a candidate often end up supporting the candidate even more after watching commercials trying to undermine that candidate.

People develop “higher evaluations in the face of negative information,” Redlawsk said, because when they see their favorite political candidate being attacked, their “emotional systems” kick in.

According to the professor, people show limited interest in positive information about a candidate — but negative information evokes curiosity and encourages investigation.

New information that diverges from one’s original way of thinking leads to anxiety, Redlawsk said. When people hear something that they do not necessarily agree with, they’ll try to shut out this information and strengthen their original argument.

This then leads to an increase in positive feelings for the candidate, Redlawsk said.

“I found it to be interesting that negative information can get us to support the candidate more,” freshman accounting major Brian Kremenich said after the forum.

However, confrontation with new information can also trigger a search for accuracy, according to Redlawsk. This is an example of voters’ “affective intelligence,” he said.

The extremity of the threat posed by the new information determines how people respond.

“Low threat levels encourage motivated reasoning. Higher levels may lead to affective intelligence,” Redlawsk said.

In a study that simulated a U.S. presidential election, negative information was given out to subjects about favored candidates, and their affective states before and after the experiment were recorded.

Research found that the stronger the  onslaught of negative information, the more likely it was to fuel people in the search for what was accurate.

Redlawsk suggested was that trying to undermine an opponent may not be the best way to promote one’s own political standing and recommended a different route.

“A little humor, a little niceness, and you can do whatever you want,” Redlawsk said.