How political negativity rules our brains

By Matthew MacNaughton

Oct. 19, 2020

Illustration by Scotty Reifsnyder

Many Americans have already begun to cast their votes for the 2020 election, which will decide their representatives in Congress and who controls the White House. 

Supporters of both major political parties are often motivated by the opportunity to elect their preferred candidates. But some voters may be motivated by something else—punishing the other party’s candidate at the ballot box.

Vinod Venkatraman, associate professor of marketing at the Fox School of Business, co-authored a study investigating how supporters of political parties react to positive and negative messages about their own and opposing parties. Specifically, the study examines the role that partisan bias plays—how members of each party may excuse problems with their own party while wishing to punish the other party for similar issues.

The researchers, who conducted the study in Spain, showed participants positive, neutral and negative messages about both their own party and the opposing party. The negative messages were related to party corruption, a political issue in Spain at the time. 

Luis-Alberto Casado-Aranda, assistant professor of marketing at University of Granada in Spain, led the study. He formed a partnership with Venkatraman during an internship in 2018 with the Center for Applied Research in Decision Making, which Venkatraman currently leads. Their research, “Does Partisan Bias Modulate Neural Processing of Political Information? An Analysis of the Neural Correlates of Corruption and Positive Messages,” was published in the journal Political Psychology earlier this year.

“I wanted to do an internship here at Temple because I wanted to work with Professor Venkatraman and (former faculty member) Angelika Dimoka, who are the leaders in the field,” Casado-Aranda says. “My background is in business, but this internship gave me a lot of experience designing and analyzing fMRI data.”

The researchers reached out to political partisans in particular to participate in their study.

“The most important thing was to recruit participants with extreme political affiliations,” explains Casado-Aranda. “On a partisanship scale of one to 10, we needed at least a nine. That way we could reliably measure how these messages affected participants’ partisan bias.”

After being shown a message, participants were asked how much they wanted to either support or punish the party in response. Using fMRI technology, the researchers examined how these different messages activated specific areas in participants’ brains. 

The results had a clear takeaway: Negative messages about the opposite party elicited a stronger reaction than positive messages about either party.

“Positive messages about both parties were just less interesting to people than the negative,” Casado-Aranda explains. “Positive messages about a person’s own party did not provoke the value or reward-related areas of the brain, but negative messages about the other party had a larger effect.”

While the study does not tie these results to voting intentions, it shows that parties might be able to elicit a strong punishment reaction against the opposing party by highlighting negatives, like corruption scandals. At the very least, the belief that the other party is wrong might be more interesting to your brain than the belief that your own party is right.

“In some ways we are sensitized to these messages about our own parties,” Venkatraman says, “but learning something negative about the other party elicits a much stronger negative brain response. It validates your belief that you’re doing this right and the other party is bad.”

What do the results mean for the U.S.? If negative messaging about an opposite party indeed does a better job of engaging your brain’s response than positive aspects about your own party, it is possible that negative political ad campaigns will continue to increase in the future. Nevertheless, Casado-Aranda and Venkatraman cautioned that while the results may have some crossover, the study would have to be modified to measure U.S. participants’ explicit responses to these campaigns. 

“There is probably some parallel between broader positive and negative messages in the two countries, but I don’t think I would frame the negative message with corruption in the U.S.-context, at least. But do people base their opinions on their disagreement with the other party? Those kinds of results might hold,” Casado-Aranda says.