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Obama, the GOP and the Knobe Effect: Why Negative Messages Win Votes

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American politics has an August tradition: Incumbents and challengers fan through the nation claiming credit for the good they've done, blaming the other side for all manner of horribles -- then blaming each other for the "blame game."

Guess which strategy generally catches the most traction with voters? Trying to cash an electoral check for credit based on accomplishments? Or tossing those thunderbolts of blame? Duh.

Don't bother complaining that American politics seems to be all about negative campaigning. There's evidence that negative works because our brains are just wired that way.

Take a couple of hypotheticals:

negative campaigningImagine a town where the recession killed 1,000 jobs -- but the government stimulus triggered a highway project that created 1,000 jobs. Should this be a win, a loss, or a political wash for the administration?

Or consider the BP oil spill. The government devoted huge resources in an attempt to mitigate the damage. And yet, some serious harm was clearly suffered. Do you give the administration more credit for keeping things from getting worse or blame Obama et al. even more for failing to prevent the damage in the first place?

If you are like most people, even if you like Obama, your needle starts off a bit toward the "blame" side. The imbalance is called the Knobe Effect, named after Joshua Knobe, a Yale philosophy professor who made an astonishing discovery while still a grad student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Translated loosely from academic geek-speak: All things being equal, people are more likely to assign intentionality -- and blame -- when something goes wrong than they are to ascribe intentionality -- and credit -- when something goes right.

Knobe's initial experiment on this topic, published in 2003, became an instant classic. He presented two scenarios to a bunch of people. Here's the first one:

The vice president of a company went to the chairman of the board and said: "We are thinking of starting a new program. It will help us increase profits, but it will also harm the environment."

The chairman of the board answered: "I don't care at all about harming the environment. I just want to make as much profit as I can. Let's start the new program."

They started the new program. Sure enough, the environment was harmed.

Now ask yourself: Did the chairman of the board intentionally harm the environment?

For the second scenario, he simply replaced the word "harm" with "help." So:
The vice president of a company went to the chairman of the board and said: "We are thinking of starting a new program. It will help us increase profits, and it will also help the environment."

The chairman of the board answered: "I don't care at all about helping the environment. I just want to make as much profit as I can. Let's start the new program."

They started the new program. Sure enough, the environment was helped.

Now ask yourself: Did the chairman of the board intentionally help the environment?

If your thinking is like "Star Trek's" logical Mr. Spock, you'll answer the same to each question, right? Either both equally intended the effect on the environment and deserve equivalent consequences, or neither did.

But that's not remotely how people actually answered. About 8 in 10 people blamed the first guy. Only about 2 in 10 gave the second guy credit.

Illogical? As my favorite Spock quote puts it: "Logic is a wreath of pretty flowers that smell bad."

Some version of the experiment has been repeated dozens of times. With children as young as 4 years old. In Hindi and in French. With people in whom Asperger's syndrome has been diagnosed.

Sometimes the chief executive of the story is replaced by a terrorist working against lottery-high odds to set off a bomb vs. a bystander working against the same improbable odds trying to prevent an explosion. Or with a man who is a lousy marksman who shoots at a target or at a person. And so on.

In every single case, a person whose action results in a bad thing is much more likely to be blamed than a person whose action produces a good thing gets credit. Just as if our minds were hardwired to approach these kinds of problems in a particular manner -- judging morality before evaluating facts.

Adam Smith famously imagined a free market wielding an "invisible hand" that corrects inequalities without the need for special human intervention. The Knobe Effect, on the other hand, operates like an invisible thumb on the scale of how people evaluate each other. It creates a default imbalance, and we don't even know it's happening.

How does the Knobe Effect work? Why does it happen? Those questions are white-hot in the rarefied worlds of experimental philosophy and evolutionary psychology. Unless you happen to be part of the debates, it's like a volcano on the far side of the moon: Ferocious and heated and unseen. It's been all but unmentioned outside the academic literature.

Are people applying moral judgment before they even hear the facts? Are they reacting emotionally rather than logically? Can scenarios be developed where the effect can be muted? Is the effect a reflection of how our neurons are connected or an artifact of culture? What can we say about the minority -- the 20 percent who disagree about blame and credit?

You can find lots of disagreement about the answers to those questions. But for all the academic tumult, there seems to be no doubt expressed in the literature that the basic effect -- a profound, inherent imbalance for most people in favor of blame -- is as real as rocks.

When I recently learned about the effect, I immediately thought about the potential real-world consequences. Does it help explain, for instance, how juries operate? Or the persistence of flame wars on the Internet? Or why some political strategies are more successful than others?

I contacted Knobe (which has a silent "k" and rhymes with "robe" and not with the last name of "Star Wars" protagonist Obi-Wan) and asked him whether he or other academics had investigated practical implications for his discovery. Nope.

"Most of us know extraordinarily little about contemporary politics," he said.

He was willing to speculate, however, about the real world effects of his effect. So I presented him with my two scenarios.

For the equal number of jobs lost and created:

"Even if the goodness of the good effect is just as important as the badness of the bad effect, I'm sure that people would assign more weight to the bad one somehow," Knobe said. "They would be more likely to consider it intentional, more likely to blame the government for it. I bet they would even tend to think of the whole policy more in terms of the bad impacts than the good ones."

For the battles against oil damage in the Gulf:

"If the government's programs have both good and bad effects, people will be overwhelmingly drawn to pay more attention to the bad ones," he said.

Which sounds like bad news for the Democrats and good news for Republicans come November.

But Knobe admitted he wasn't an expert on practical politics. So I went looking for someone with hard-core political experience. I wanted to know if Knobe's experimental results lined up with the way politics actually happens. I found Jeremy Rosner, executive vice president of Greenberg, Quinlan, Rosner, a polling/consulting firm in Washington, and former special adviser to President Bill Clinton. His extensive client list includes candidates from Australia, Great Britain, several former Soviet nations, and the United States.

In his experience, do voters tend to blame more than they give credit? To summarize and paraphrase his answer: "Duh. "

He was, of course, actually much more insightful than that.

"I think this is so rooted in the human condition," he said. "We all die. We are all hardwired to fear bad things rather than to reward good things. As a result, in politics, fear dominates hope most times."

That's not a reality that many politicians want to hear, he said.

"Gratitude is the single worst political strategy everywhere in the world," he said. "I spend a lot of my time telling the politicians I work with to give up the false hope that you can ever win votes through gratitude. When they do big things and they work, they understandably want to tell you about it. And if they tell you what they did, they assume you will reward them. But it never, ever works."

Successful candidates find a way to show they share the eternal dissatisfaction of voters -- feel their pain -- before nudging forward a claim that they deserve credit for accomplishments.

The two major exceptions in recent American political history to the hope-vs.-fear imbalance were Ronald Reagan's "morning in America" and Barack Obama's "change we can believe in"-- each followed administrations viewed as thudding failures by a majority of voters, he said.

"The few times hope works is when we are so scared by the present," he said.

The Knobe Effect is not the only invisible thumb that experiments have found on the human scale of interpersonal evaluation.

- The Dunning-Kruger Effect says that ignorance tends to be associated with overconfidence. (And by the way, not even good information cures ignorance for lots of us. Depressing, that. )

- Another series of experiments indicates that people tend to be more honest if they are told that an imaginary observer is watching -- even if they know beyond a slightest doubt that the observer is imaginary. (Call it the Santa Claus Effect. "He knows when you've been bad or good . . .")

- And for real fun, ask Mr. Google about the "Trolley Problem" and the principle of double effect. Imagine a trolley coming down a track and you see it is about to kill five people. You can push a fat man onto the track to stop the trolley. You will kill that man but save the other five.

Would you do it? Almost nobody says it would be the right thing to do.

Illogical? "Logic is a little tweeting bird chirping in a meadow," says Spock.

All of which indicates that there's a lot more going on between your ears than you're aware of, a lot that gets in the way of how you see the world long before you even decide to look. Several hand's worth of invisible thumbs push the scale away from what logic -- or a truly neutral observer -- would decide. So how do we ever get anything right?

Turns out that some of those thumbs nudge us toward success more often than not. If that were not the case, after all, natural selection would have selected a more successful critter long ago. For the Knobe Effect, it's surely safer as a long-run survival strategy to be a bit overly negative rather than overly positive.

In other cases, cultural influences push the thumb off the scale.

Consider the American criminal jury system. It may be true, based on Knobe, that individual jurors tend to pay more attention to the negatives about a defendant. But our laws set a high bar for the evidence, so that subtle bias should not be enough to secure a conviction. And we require unanimous agreement, which is also a significant challenge to the Knobe Effect.

Plus, large enough real-world factors can push against the hidden influences of any of these invisible thumbs. Rosner recalled campaigns he'd worked for in Australia and in Tbilisi, a city in the former Soviet republic of Georgia. In Australia, almost all the effective campaigning was negative, he said. But in Tbilisi, a city that still bore fresh scars from a bloody civil war, the voters had no appetite for attack ads, he said.

I asked Knobe how he dealt with his self-named effect in his own life. How does he approach situations where most people are inclined to prejudge blame or credit?

"I find myself struggling just to look at things for what they are, to understand them in themselves and not just pass judgment on them," he said. "It's such a difficult task. Our brains are built to focus always on evaluation, and it's only with great effort that we can shift toward simply seeking understanding."

Which gets us back to realpolitik and the upcoming election. Is Obama being advised by people who know about the blame/credit imbalance? Maybe.

Last week he gave a speech about the economy that listed a lot of putative accomplishments before taking a dig at the GOP as obstructionist. The day before, he started with the blame part of the equation before getting to accomplishments and goals.

Obama's main spokesman, Robert Gibbs, on the other hand, just gave an interview to The Hill blasting what he called the "professional left" for being insufficiently grateful for what the administration had accomplished. The Knobe effect says that's not a smart play.

For the GOP, if Knobe's effect holds, playing a mostly negative defense may be a plenty effective strategy for the upcoming congressional and state-level elections. Even if Obama is exactly correct in his description of events, enough voters may default to blaming the party in power.

Rosner, the political consultant, says he's consistent with what he tells his clients. And it ain't exactly "accentuate the positive."

"Always think of the word 'dissatisfaction.' People are always dissatisfied," he said. "They're going to die, and nothing is ever enough."

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Obama whines about Bush getting him in the "Ditch," but he keeps getting us stuck deeper.

August 11 2010 at 7:17 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

"Accomplishments", Mr. Corn?

Is it a great accomplishment to govern against the will of the governed? To leave millions unemployed while harrying and bearbaiting industrial employers? To ration health care and preclude selecting one's provider while claiming otherwise? To spend $832 Billion without a trace of the promised benefits in private-sector employment, economic recovery, or housing stabilization?

Such "accomplishments" as these earn the rightful wrath of an electorate who may deliver a sharp reply in November.

Smaller, yet more effective government: that WOULD be an accomplishment!

August 10 2010 at 8:09 PM Report abuse +4 rate up rate down Reply
dc walker

I think Obama found a stash buried under the White House-- why else would he keep signing off billions in bills when we are nearly $14 trillion in debt and only take in $2 trillion in yearly taxes??

August 10 2010 at 6:03 PM Report abuse -2 rate up rate down Reply

The primary "negative" that is being attributed to Obama and the Dem Congress, and one that is sticking like velcro is a policy narrative. It is that this group and their leader are big government liberals, outside of the acceptable range for this country. The big fear that is being realized whether it is the stimulus, Health Care, or this most recent $26 billion dollar bailout of the teachers, is that the private economy is being ignored, and people instinctivly know this will mean European style regression. Despite assertions from the left, there is no synergy in government, only the private economy is capable of inexorable growth by feeding off the inherent velocity and self-perpetuation of a vibrant ,cyclical business recovery.

August 10 2010 at 5:33 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to jtzeph's comment

The private economy is the host: the government is the parasite: one can live without the other. The converse is not true.

August 10 2010 at 9:59 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

What is surprising is that people actually follow these ads more so than the actual person in the ads. Case in point - did anyone who voted for GW Bush actually look at his track record as governor of texas? The ones I asked said they didn't and when they did they were surprised. negative ads are there to hide what the negatives are on the other side of the debate. This is what I like to say is the downside of the political scene today. Why debate an issue when you can constantly hammer at the other guys past. people will pay attention. The losers in all of this is the American voting populace.

August 10 2010 at 5:01 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

All this deep thinking about, why people aren't giving the credit to Obama, when we never saw this kind of anguish in the news media when George W. Bush was President. Maybe just maybe the stupid, lowly citizenry are assigning blame to the person responsible for 10% unemployment, a trillion dollars wasted and general distrust of the government by business. Just a thought for the eggheads to consider.

August 10 2010 at 12:04 PM Report abuse +10 rate up rate down Reply

The question itself is not neutral. One scenario has a "good result IN SPITE of a bad result, and the other has a good result IN ADDITION to another good result. Anyone with any sense of human nature knows that the person deciding the policy will be looking at the profit first and foremost in both scenarios. so the person knowingly causes the bad result in order to achieve the profit, it is easy to see that causing the bad result was intentional. Not with the sole intent of causing the bad result per se, but knowingly causing it. with the two good results one is just a fortunate thing that happened in addition to the profit. Definitely not intentional. It is like a math problem where you change the sign from positive to negative somewhere in the middle of an equation. The author would have you believe if you change the sign from positive to negative in the equation, then the end result should change from positive to negative. But math doesnt work like that. By changing a sign in the middle of an equation, you changed the whole equation.

August 10 2010 at 10:06 AM Report abuse +6 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to donfinley3006's comment

Except the guy specifically tells you that the bad/good result is *not* intentional. He simply doesn't care. Replace the help/harm to the environment with neutral items. Will change the color of paint on a wall to blue or red. If he says he doesn't care, do you then decide he really did intend for it to happen?

August 10 2010 at 12:01 PM Report abuse -3 rate up rate down Reply

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