Scientists track effects of negative ads
By SETH BORENSTEIN, AP Science Writer Fri Nov 3, 6:34
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'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
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
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
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,
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
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
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
"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: