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Scientists track effects of negative ads

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  • Greg Cannon
    http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20061103/ap_on_sc/political_ads_science;_ylt=Al3xUxGDdwEo17o3ErA88sBxieAA;_ylu=X3oDMTA3MzV0MTdmBHNlYwM3NTM- Scientists track effects
    Message 1 of 1 , Nov 4, 2006
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      http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20061103/ap_on_sc/political_ads_science;_ylt=Al3xUxGDdwEo17o3ErA88sBxieAA;_ylu=X3oDMTA3MzV0MTdmBHNlYwM3NTM-

      Scientists track effects of negative ads

      By SETH BORENSTEIN, AP Science Writer Fri Nov 3, 6:34
      PM ET

      WASHINGTON - The grainy black-and-white images appear
      on television, while ominous music plays in the
      background. It's another in a blizzard of negative
      political ads and before you consciously know it, the
      message takes hold of your brain. You may not want it
      to, but it works just about instantly.

      In fact, the ad's effects on the brain "are actually
      shocking," says UCLA psychiatry professor Dr. Marco
      Iacoboni.

      Iacoboni's brain imaging research from the 2004
      presidential campaign revealed that viewers lost
      empathy for their own candidate once he was attacked.

      Scientists around the country are logging the
      emotional and physical effects of negative political
      ads. Iacoboni tracked parts of the middle brain that
      lit up in brain scans when people watched their
      favorite candidates get attacked. Other scientists
      hooked up wires to measure frowns and smiles before
      the meaning of the ads' words sunk in. Mostly,
      researchers found that negative ads tend to polarize
      and make it less likely that supporters of an attacked
      candidate will vote.

      "Everyone says, 'We hate them, they're terrible,'"
      said psychology professor George Bizer of Union
      College in Schenectady, N.Y.

      However, he added, "They seem to work."

      And politicians know it because the latest figures
      show that by nearly a 10-to-1 ratio, political parties
      are spending more money on negative ads than positive
      ones.

      Iacoboni's research usually has little to do with
      politics. At UCLA, he uses a functional magnetic
      resonance imaging machine to do brain mapping.

      However, in 2004, he and a political scientist studied
      the brains of supporters of President Bush and Sen.
      John Kerry during the presidential campaign.

      When the test subjects saw a picture of the candidate
      they supported, the medial orbital frontal cortex of
      the brain — the area behind the eyeballs associated
      with empathy — lit up.

      When they were shown a picture or TV ad for the
      candidate they opposed, the island-shaped insula in
      the middle of the brain lit up along with other areas
      "associated with distaste," Iacoboni said. Then, other
      parts of the brain activated, as if the participants
      were "using their rational brain areas to get upset at
      the other guy; they were using it to find a reason" to
      dislike the candidate, Iacoboni said.

      Repeating his original work later in the campaign
      after people had seen a flurry of negative ads on both
      sides, empathy for their own candidates just
      disappeared, indicating they no longer identified so
      much with their candidate.

      "The more you are bombarded by ads, the more you are
      going to be affected by that," Iacoboni said. "It's
      even philosophical — how much of free will do we
      have?"

      Negative ads make supporters of the attacker more
      likely to vote and followers of the victimized
      candidate depressed and less likely to vote, said
      Stanford University communications professor Shanto
      Iyengar, co-author of the book "Going Negative: How
      Political Advertisements Shrink and Polarize the
      Electorate."

      But the attack ads don't do much to independents, said
      Iyengar, who is finishing a study on people's
      reactions to positive and negative ads in seven close
      and nasty U.S. Senate races that will be decided on
      Tuesday. His online study measured "the basic gut
      feeling, the emotional reaction," of Democrats,
      Republicans and independents as they watched the ads,
      he said.

      An attack ad of Democratic U.S. Senate candidate
      Harold Ford of Tennessee which featured a
      bare-shouldered blonde woman who spoke of meeting the
      African-American Ford at a Playboy party "is pulling
      people into separate camps," Iyengar said. Republicans
      reacted positively to the add, seeming energized to
      vote, he said, while Democrats reacted negatively,
      which could keep them from voting. Independents stayed
      near neutral.

      These ads do not get people to switch sides, Iyengar
      said. "You can't get them to vote for you, but maybe
      you can get them to stay home."

      What makes these ads work, Iyengar said, are
      "emotional triggers."

      Those triggers reach into our brains faster than
      words, ideas and rational thought, said Williams
      College political science professor George Marcus.
      Marcus, president of the International Society of
      Political Psychology, has hooked people up to wires to
      measure frowns and smiles when they see campaign
      material and found that people respond to ads
      emotionally after about 80 milliseconds. It takes
      another 300 milliseconds before the words and issues
      hit the consciousness.

      Bizer said his studies, which used fictional
      candidates, showed that when people form opinions
      based on negatives instead of positives, they are less
      likely to change their minds.

      These ads allow people to take the easy way out, not
      studying issues and just relying on emotions, Iyengar
      said.

      "If more people realized that this was all a question
      of pushing the right buttons ... I think there would
      be a realization that maybe I ought to sit down, take
      the time and study up on the issues," he said.

      ___

      On the Net:

      The new Stanford study on negative and positive ads in
      close senate races:

      http://pcl-wp.stanford.edu/s7/
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