Ghost in the Democratic Machine? Attack ads, voters, and the unconscious mind

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Abray, Timothy J.
Political Studies , Voter behaviour , Negative advertising , Political psychology , Democratic theory
This project is about the effects of campaign attack advertising on the choices of voters. But, rather than re-engage the perennial, unresolved debate and adopting one of the standard yes-they-do/no-they-don’t binary positions and employing conventional, survey-based methods to investigate, this dissertation takes a page from studies in political psychology and consumer behaviour. It begins by engaging with a routinely begged question: do human cognitive responses to negative ads measure up to the expectations of orthodox theories of democratic functioning? The answer arrived at here is: no, they do not. The case is made in three parts: • First, by examining the literature and spotlighting the underlying challenges that routinely plague studies of negative/attack ads; • Second, by arguing that one of the reasons the literature so consistently produces contradictory and confounded results may be rooted in the mismatch between the individual-centred theory that underpins democratic systems (and the importance of explicit information sharing/debate to those systems) and the survey-driven, multi-variate, inferential approach that is most often employed. Drawing from adjacent fields of study, this dissertation argues that increasing our focus on experiments aimed at isolating and testing individual psychological mechanisms may help add useful grist to the mill of this ongoing debate. • Finally, it proposes a methodology for investigating the individual-level cognitive effects of attack ads, operationalizing and testing that methodology in a randomized, controlled experiment involving nearly 300 demographically diverse subjects. The findings of this project demonstrate that re-orienting the investigative frame to focus on the mechanisms of individuals’ cognitive processes is possible (consistent with related work in cognitive psychology, consumer behaviour, and political psychology), and that individual, isolated cognitive effects can be efficiently accessed and systematically studied, and, finally, that this re-orientation can generate important insights into the mechanisms at play at the individual, cognitive level. The results of the study underline the fragility of voters’ conscious assessments of political information, by showing that the effects of attack messaging are measurably present in the post-exposure behaviour of individual subjects, unconsciously altering their considered assessments of subsequent political information, contrary to the expectations of orthodox theories of voting behaviour.
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