Monitor on Psychology - April 2012 - (Page 49)
Subtle tactics Even more concerning than blatantly negative advertising, however, is the potential use of subliminal messages in campaign ads, says Weinberger. No campaign has admitted to intentionally using subliminal messages, but during the 2000 presidential election, the Bush campaign aired an ad where the word “RATS” flashed onscreen for a fraction of a second. The consultant who made the ad, Alex Castellanos, admitted to placing “RATS” intentionally as “a visual drumbeat designed to make you look at the word bureaucrats,” though he stopped short of saying it was meant to unconsciously sway voters. Regardless of the campaign’s intention, quickly flashing “RATS” can unconsciously cause people to view a candidate more negatively, according to a study by Weinberger and Drew Westen, PhD, published in 2008 in Political Psychology. In the study, the researchers subliminally presented 91 participants one of four subliminal stimuli: RATS, STAR, ARAB or XXXX. They then showed a picture of a fictional political candidate and asked participants to rate whether he looked competent and likable. The researchers found that the subliminal “RATS” message depressed participants’ ratings of the candidate, while the other words did not. No other examples of subliminal messages in campaign ads have come to light since, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t being used, Weinberger says. “We haven’t seen anything as blatant as the “RATS” ad, but, of course, you aren’t supposed to catch them.” More obvious disgust triggers — such as environmentalists’ use of pictures of the Pacific Ocean garbage patch in fundraising campaigns — can also have a powerful effect on people’s political views, says Pizarro. But left-leaning groups should take note: Images and even extremely subtle reminders of disease and contamination seem to push people toward the conservative end of the spectrum, according to research by Pizarro and others. In one study, in press in Psychological Science, Pizarro and his colleagues asked randomly selected students to fill out a survey of their political attitudes. They found that the students endorsed more conservative attitudes when they stood next to a bottle of handsanitizer or near a sign reminding them to wash their hands. In another study, published last year in Emotion, students who filled out a survey in room with a noxious odor reported feeling less warmth toward gays than students in a normal-smelling room. That may sound like an unlikely result, but past research suggests that subtle reminders of contamination can trigger a knee-jerk fear of outsiders — a xenophobic disgust reaction that may have once served to protect people from diseases carried by other tribes. Today, however, it has little use, Pizarro says. “Disgust should motivate you to not touch really dirty things, but I don’t think it should motivate social, political or moral judgments,” he says.
APRIL 2012 • MONITOR ON PSYCHOLOGY
Get out the vote — what works, what doesn’t?
Video: Get-out-the-vote efforts are a staple of political campaigns. Harvard psychologist Todd Rogers, PhD, former executive director of the behavioral science political consulting firm the Analyst Institute, discusses how campaigns are beginning to use psychologists’ research on what motivates people to vote. Click here for a transcript of the video.
Thinking of children can also make people lean conservative, according to research by Richard Eibach, PhD, a psychology professor at the University of Waterloo. In a 2009 study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, Eibach found that simply reminding parents of their children triggered harsher evaluations of people engaged in distasteful but essentially harmless behavior, such as a dwarf who participates in dwarf-tossing events. Results from the 2006 General Social Survey provide dovetailing results, with parents judging premarital sex as more morally wrong than nonparents. “When you are a nonparent, you can afford to have a fairly lax attitude toward morality so long as someone isn’t harming someone else,” he says. “When you’re a parent — or reminded of being a parent — you can’t afford to ignore rude or uncivil or unpleasant behavior, because it can potentially corrupt your children’s character development.” Given these findings, liberal or libertarian candidates might want to avoid the tropes of smiling children or rotting garbage in their campaign ads. However, images in ads probably matter most when we don’t know much about a candidate to begin with, Brader says. “If it’s a new candidate ... it might help build positive feelings to have the candidate in an ad, smiling, holding happy children, standing with the American flag,” he says. “But once we know a candidate, our prior convictions, especially partisanship, are going to take over.” n
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