Why ‘Politics of Fear’ Works

Negative campaigning has been a constant of American elections for as long as I can remember, and is now making its way into mainstream UK politics. Seed looks at how evolution can explain both the appeal and recent failings of negative campaigning.

Advertisers, like neuroscientists, started out with a so-called cognitive model of decision making — a model driven by logic, rationality, and the precise weighing of options. But this model “has been thrown out completely,” says David Bonney, a former psychology researcher who has conducted studies for huge advertising firms such as DDB on the impact of emotional advertising. “Emotion, we’ve realized in the last decade, drives all decision making.”

The human brain, faced with a daily onslaught of information, uses emotion to tag certain events as worth remembering and using for decision-making. A parking space is forgotten; a death is remembered. Negative words and actions probably have a greater impact because they elicit stronger emotions.