Political mud slinging pays, claim psychologists

October 30, 2003

Brussels, 29 Oct 2003

Arnold Schwarzenegger's latest incarnation as the 'governator' out to clean up dirty Californian politics was a textbook example of effective political advertising in action, a new cognitive psychology theory claims.

Political commentators around the world have been scratching their heads in bewilderment at how Arnold Schwarzenegger - a Hollywood heavyweight but a political lightweight - managed his ascent into the California governor's mansion. Behavioural Decision Theory (BDT) suggests that the outcome was not all that surprising.

Traditional normative theory - popular among classical political scientists and economists - suggests that people are rational and vote after weighing up all the available information. BDT, a branch of cognitive psychology, suggests that voters are not entirely rational but are also partly guided by their emotions and 'cognitive rules of thumb' known as heuristics.

"[They] systematically influence the way we remember and evaluate information," explained Jeff Fox, a political science professor at Catawba College, in an interview. Fox is the co-author, along with Rick Farmer, of 'A behavioural approach to political advertising research'. The essay appeared in a volume that delved into the various aspects of BDT entitled 'Judgement, decisions and public policy'.

Simply the best policy

BDT assumes that voters are 'cognitive misers'. This means that they want to minimise the effort they expend in processing political information. This flies in the face of the normative approach which suggests that people actively seek to maximise their political knowledge before taking a decision. This makes simple, eye-catching campaigns that focus on the minimum of issues more likely to succeed.

In fact, BDT makes the bold suggestion that "people with limited information make the same judgements and choices as they would make if they had significantly more". If true, this has enormous implications for politicians, giving pause for thought to EU policy-makers as they extend their message to an ever-widening European audience after 2004's accession takes place. "People have lives. People don't have time to be policy wonks," co-author Farmer was quoted as saying.

BDT also suggests that the most effective way to dislodge an incumbent in an election is to run a negative campaign. Prospect Theory, a branch of BDT, explains that people are more likely to recall negative information and to act if they feel they are averting some kind of harm or danger. "A challenger has to convince the voters to fire a guy that they just hired four years ago," Farmer explains.

Not only did Schwarzenegger have enormous name recognition but his campaign's focus on the alleged failure of the incumbent governor and his use of simple, eye-catching slogans based on his action heroes helped him sweep aside voter reservations regarding his political inexperience.

DG Research
http:///europa.eu.int/comm/dgs/research/i ndex_en.html
Item source: http:///europa.eu.int/comm/research/headl ines/index_en.cfm

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