The case for negative campaigning

Science Friday:  Why negative campaigning works!  An Overview

As political consultants, we catch TONS of blow-back for negative campaigning.  blowback

However, when we are asked why we engage in negative campaigning, we don’t do ourselves any favors by flippant remarks such as “Well, negative campaigning just works!”

As professionals, we all know it just works.  We know it intuitively, we have been taught it by mentors’ rules of thumb, and we have seen the numbers tank 20 points when an explosive direct mail piece / issue hits.   We have the war stories.

We also know that we can pump out positive, fluff bio pieces by the truckloads and not interest the press one darn bit.  However, we send out one, small universe hit piece and the press goes NUTS!

However, let’s not just blame the press or just retort “It just works”.

Instead, let’s take a moment to explore the real culprit : the human mind.

Yep, it’s your brains’ fault that negative campaigning works.

It is your brain’s fault!

Principle #1 :  Bad Interactions have stronger, more pervasive, and longer lasting effects.  

In a 2001 study by Roy Baumeister, Ellen Bratslavsky and Catrin Finkenauer “Bad is Stronger Than Good”, the results are clear!  In their conclusion, “It appears to be a basic, pervasive fact of psychology that bad is stronger than good.”

The study performs a comprehensive review of different literature of “bad versus good”  It reviews everything from evolution to psychology to communication to relationships to emotions and moods to rewards and punishment to how we process information.

In fact, when speaking of processing information:

“Thus bad information does receive more thorough information processing than good information.  Bad information is more likely to seize attention, and it receives more conscious processing as well.”

It does not matter where you look, the human mind is wired – “Bad interactions have stronger, more pervasive, and longer lasting effects.”  PERIOD!

Read the complete study:  Bad is Stonger Than Good

Principle #2:  Loss Aversion – Losses loom larger than gains.

Human brains are wired to be loss averse, by a large margin.   When faced with potential losses, our brains become totally irrational and develop a blind spot … by a large spread.  JoyLoss

“The “loss aversion ratio” has been estimated in several experiments and is usually in the range of 1.5 to 2.5.” Kahneman, Daniel (2011-10-25). Thinking, Fast and Slow (p. 284).

Essentially, the human responses to loss is stronger than the response to corresponding gains.    This is commonly referred to as prospect theory, and this concept changeds Economics and how we think of human decision making.

Further suggested reading:  Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman (it really is an almost must read)


In summary, our brains are wired to remember the bad.  It appears to an evolution trait developed so that we may live:  remember the bad tiger and survive the threat – OR – remember the good smelling flower and get eaten by the tiger.

In summary, we also know that if we can make you fearful of losing something, we can awaken emotions in your brain that you didn’t know you had.

In this cluttered, busy and fast moving world, is it any wonder of what breaks through?

We can motivate your brain with bad, scary information, and it is cheaper to do so.

However, it ain’t political consultants’ fault!  It is your brain’s fault!

The next time your neighbor or the press goes crazy about a negative piece do not reply “It just works”.

Instead tell them why it works:

“It’s your brain’s fault – your brain remembers & thinks about bad stuff more and your brain is loss averse by a 2:1 margin.  Change your brain, and I will change my campaign tactics.”

About Alex Patton

2 Responses to “The case for negative campaigning”

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  1. Chris Rosenbaum says:

    I am so glad I came across your site. Simply some of the best writing about the how of politics. Normally, it is just one sided garbage. Nicely done.

  2. Dan says:

    This blog is awesome. Not too egg heady, not too pundit .. just right.

    Consider me a fan.