Why so negative?

Ella Rhodes speaks to psychologists about the ongoing EU referendum campaigns.

Almost as soon as the EU Referendum was announced both ‘in’ and ‘out’ camps and their supporters accused one another of scare-mongering to ‘prove’ their case. The vote, to be held on 23 June, will decide whether Britain has a future as part of the European Union, but with many unpredictable side effects whichever way the vote goes.

Is fear-mongering among campaigners inevitable in a vote whose outcome holds massive, and largely unknown, potential? Why have we seen this kind of campaigning so far, bringing in everything from war to the cost of family holidays? Are the campaigns likely to become increasingly fear-driven or can we expect to see other developments, in psychological terms, throughout the remainder of the campaigns? We spoke to psychologists Steve Reicher, Dean Burnett and Luciana Carraro for their opinion.

Professor Steve Reicher (University of St Andrews) said although the referendum is being posed as about Britain and Europe, people would likely view the referendum through a prism other than ‘nation’. He added: ‘In many ways I think the more relevant identities revolve around ordinary people vs. elites - or simply people vs. politicians.’ He suggested in our anti-political age people see politicians, not as ‘ours’ and ‘theirs’, or a Labour vs Tory politician, but rather as a category in and of themselves:  ‘Moreover a category who look after themselves to our detriment,’ he added.

Reicher said: ‘That, of course, is what the expenses scandal was all about. It lies behind the rise of left and right populisms throughout the world – from Donald Trump to Syriza to Podemos to the Front National to Corbyn to UKIP.’ Reicher suggested that in this anti-political era many politicians had not yet realised that conventional politics does not work: ‘Doing things that might conventionally doom you now doesn’t – it might even help you, something Trump mastered to perfection.’

Reicher added that this can all be combined with the issue of prospect theory and the framing of risk. He said: ‘We are less likely to risk a major loss to make a gain than to take a risk to avoid a loss. One way that the SNP shifted the debate in Scotland was to move from the risks of leaving the UK to arguing that there were certain dangers of staying in the UK (threats to the Health Service) and that it was worth taking a punt to avoid these. We see similar framings going on now.'

Neuroscientist and author Dr Dean Burnett (Cardiff University) said that as the campaign drew to a close he expected to see both sides using more personalities and familiar faces as opposed to theoretical arguments and policy positions. He said: ‘The Leave campaign in particular may lack any “certainty” on which to pin their case, and people really don't like uncertainty. In contrast, people do respond really well to familiar, confident figures, especially if they do and say things we already agree with, leading to confirmation bias.’ As a result, he added, as we approach the vote and the campaigners feel the need to pull out all the stops to win, we would see more of the campaign figureheads such as Boris Johnson for ‘Leave’ and David Cameron for ‘Remain’.

Burnett added wryly: ‘When you consider that the future of a continent could be decided by a public slanging match between Johnson and Cameron, the whole "take off and nuke the place from orbit" argument doesn't seem so overzealous after all.’

We then spoke, in more depth, to Luciana Carraro from the University of Padova. First, we asked why all campaigns seem to go down a scaremongering / negative route. Do voters like this tactic? ‘Actually, when we asked voters (or participants) about the use of negative political campaigns, they usually indicate a negative opinion… they dislike such campaigns because saying something negative about other people is of course perceived as a negative behaviour, an immoral-unfair action. However, despite the awareness of this blatant reaction by voters, politicians seem to use more and more negativity during their campaigns.’

Carraro points to several psychological studies that might explain this discrepancy. ‘First of all, the new media used by politicians to communicate to voters require a brief, incisive, and sensationalistic communication style. Negative campaigning perfectly meets these criteria and, indeed, although the overall number of negative political messages does not seem to have increased over time, our research suggests that the media coverage of them has substantially increased. The media talk more about negative campaigns as compared to positive campaigns and, in the end, this may help to promote one specific candidate.’

There is also the so-called negativity bias. ‘People in general – voters in this specific case – pay more attention to negative information as compared to positive information when they form an impression about others. Research by Meffert and colleagues shows that voters spend more time reading negative information about candidates as compared to positive ones. Moreover, recent research in social psychology has pointed out that, although voters may explicitly dislike the use of negative campaigns, at the implicit level they may express a different opinion. In an influential 2007 book, Westen has raised a similar point, indicating that while blatant responses may signal strong condemnation, opposite effects may occur at an unconscious level.’

Carraro’s research recently demonstrated that although candidates relying on negative campaigns received less positive evaluations, they were also more likely to be followed. ‘In other words, despite an overt disapproval, such candidates seem to be able to increase spontaneous conformity among perceivers because they are perceived as more competent. The use of negative attacks toward the opposing candidate may increase the perceived competence of the source candidate, a crucial dimension in political decision-making.’

Will we see even more negativity in the coming weeks? ‘The general tendency seems to be an increase of negativity as campaigning goes on,’ Carraro said. ‘This may be justified by the fact that initially the candidates have to present themselves and their programme, whereas, closer to the election day they have to attract attention to themselves and the use of negativity may help to reach this goal. For instance, we analysed the Bush-Kerry 2004 US Campaign and in the last period the candidates doubled the number of negative attacks.’

Is there anything about this particular vote that lends itself to the more negative or fear-based campaign? Carraro points to recent research that has demonstrated how negative information in general (for instance terrorist attacks) may increase the support for conservative point of view and for right-wing candidates. ‘In general, people in threatening situations tend to adopt more conservative views as a protection.’ 

- What is your psychological perspective on the EU referendum? Tweet @psychmag or email the editor on [email protected]

For more on the psychology of voting, see our Research Digest and Psychologist archive.

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