The Psychology of Manipulation in Political Ads

Are you tired of all the negative attacks, robo calls, and smear campaigns this election season?  Have you ever wondered why these deplorable tactics are so widespread in political communications?  The simple answer is “because they work.”  But what exactly do they work for? I’d like to pull back the curtain and share some of the psychological mechanisms that shape political behavior and drive public discourse toward the lowest denominator.

First off, let’s be clear about one thing: it is absolutely vital that we raise the bar on the quality of our politics. We have to successfully grapple with big threats to our economy and the future of our nation.  And this is going to require more honesty, integrity, and straight talk than we’ve seen in decades from our political leaders.  Now is the time to break the Pandora’s Box of political spin and start the difficult work of cleansing our toxic, divisive, and dysfunctional political culture.

Are you with me?  Then read on…

Getting Into the Spin Zone

It will probably come as no surprise that much of what you read, hear, and see in politics today is misleading at best, and sometimes downright dishonest.  There are people who will try to convince you that voting for a particular candidate will lead to the destruction of capitalism and the downfall of Western Civilization.  Others will push narratives about class warfare to spread doubt about tax increases that only impact the super rich.  And others still will twist history to map today’s chronic problems on their opponents when they were the ones responsible for creating the problems in the first place.

Yes, our politics is broken.  And the breakdown has occurred in the landscape of conversations that shape public perception.  Communication empires have been built to set the political agenda we live in today.  And they are run by people who benefit from the covert manipulation of public will.  One of the direct benefits they get is political advantage when the nastiness of political ads turns off more reasonable people and polarizes the ideologues to cling to their base.

The spin zone was created to drive this very dynamic.  It works like this:

  1. Engage in demographic targeting. Cleave the populace into distinct groups that can be pitted against each other.
  2. Evoke fear and disgust in viewers.  This will either get them to rally to your side or withdraw from the conversation.
  3. Strengthen bonds within your demographic base. Use messages that are tailor made for particular audiences.
  4. Attack the opposition. Try to get as many people who might vote for your opponent to stay home on election day. (Learn more about this tactic in this radio interview I gave last week.)

It’s an ugly game that gets played out every election cycle.  Marketing techniques are used to tweak viewers emotions and influence their behavior.  Much of this occurs with very little oversight or regulation.

Exposing The Root Drivers of Political Behavior

Political spin is designed to engage the emotional systems of viewers brains to achieve political outcomes.  The key emotions that typically arise are fear, anger, and disgust.  We rarely see hope, compassion, or awe used to inspire people to work together toward a common vision.  The reasons for this become clear once we see how different emotional states influence how our brains process information.

Fear is a natural response to threats.  It is part of our biological legacy to have a “fight or flight” system that increases our alertness so we can make rapid decisions when a new threat appears.  One of the consequences of this alert state is that we tend to break the world into absolutes — black or white, right or wrong, good or bad.  We are less attuned to nuanced information about a person’s moral character or the details of a policy proposal.  We also fall back on our herd mentality with a tendency to uncritically align with people we consider to be like us (and to distance ourselves from those we consider “the other”).

Anger arises when we feel pain.  A flood of endorphins pour into our blood stream to make us less sensitive to our injuries.  This creates a rush of energy that is typically directed toward whatever is nearby.  When associated with an injustice, we target our anger toward the instigator of harm.  As a result, we tend to have a lower sensitivity to the feelings of this person.  Our ability to show compassion toward them is compromised.

Disgust is our body’s way of telling us that we have been poisoned.  It is most directly associated with our digestive system and involves the release of memory-enhancing hormones that encourage us to remember the source of contamination so we can avoid it in the future.  The physical experience of disgust can be associated with the moral concept of purity.  If a political label (e.g “liberal”) is associated with an impurity, the disgust response will be imprinted for a long period of time.

All three of these emotional systems are targeted by political marketers seeking to manipulate voting behavior.  They powerfully influence how people feel about candidates, policy options, and political parties.  And they operate under the radar! Most viewers are unaware that these feelings are being manipulated.

Beyond ‘Fact Checking’

By now it should be clear that there’s a lot going on psychologically in political ads.  The factual content, although important, is not the principal driver of political behavior.  And yet the standard critiques of political ads are limited to the accuracy of factual claims.  This is what groups like Factcheck.org and Media Matters do.  (FAIR goes a bit deeper and looks at sources of bias that arise due to structural issues, yet could benefit from more coverage of psychological mechanisms like those mentioned here.)

In order to raise the bar on our politics, we need to improve public understandings of how the political mind works.  People need to be taught about political psychology as part of their civic education.  They need to know how they have been manipulated in the past in order to protect themselves from blatant ethical violations in the future.

And this means we need better standards for ethical communication.  The “just the facts” strategy is too archaic to serve a 21st Century democracy.

Toward A New Definition of Integrity

People today are getting bombarded with political ads designed to evoke fear, anger, and disgust in viewers.  Yet they are not armed with knowledge about how these emotions influence their behavior.  This is why I have argued elsewhere that you need to understand political psychology.  A light needs to be shined on the harmful impacts of negative ads on our public discourse.

We need higher levels of accountability that reveal manipulative tactics and penalize those who use them.  A good way to begin this process is to deconstruct the mold of political ads.  Two key elements  of this approach are:

Revealing emotional patterns. The facts presented in an ad will be interpreted within the emotional state of the viewer, so it is necessary that these emotions be considered as part of the information content of political ads.  This includes musical tonality, potent imagery, and the speed and intensity of colors, words, and sounds.

Analyzing political frames. Cultural models set the context for political ads.  And they bring with them a set of emotional primers that shape how a candidate or political issue is understood.  These models, also known as frames, allow the viewer to quickly interpret information and draw rapid conclusions.  So they need to be considered as part of the communication process in order to determine whether the impression they create for a viewer is valid.

The integrity of a political ad can no longer be limited to “just the facts.”  People need to know how their behavior is influenced by the hidden processes in our brains. It is only by going deeper that we will see the light at the other side of the tunnel and restore civility to our civil discourse.

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Cognitive Policy Works specializes in providing organizations and individuals with frame analysis, policy briefs, strategic advising, and training.