Why Negative Campaigning Works — and How to Fight It

Photo of John Kennedy and Richard Nixon before their 1960 presidential debate in Chicago.
Richard Nixon, right, was dogged by the nickname "Tricky Dick" his entire political career, including his 1960 presidential faceoff with John Kennedy. UC Davis psychologist Alison Ledgerwood has found that once a negative idea has been planted, it’s hard to shake.
Portrait photo of UC Davis psychologist
Alison Ledgerwood

Our brains are hard-wired to remember insults and attacks — which explains why so many political campaigns go negative. Research by psychology professor Alison Ledgerwood also finds a bright side: You can train your brain to flip the script.

Ledgerwood studies framing effects, or how people process information based on how it’s presented to them. She and her colleagues have found that a negative frame is much more persistent, or “stickier,” than a positive one.

So, it’s reasonable to expect that candidates in debates will be ready with negative frames — frames they hope will stick to their opponents, and our brains. But we don’t have to be held hostage by the constant negativity.

feature in the UC "Fiat Lux" e-newsletter outlines some different ways Ledgerwood and her team have studied to shake negativity and embrace a positive frame.

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