In the Eye of the Soon-To-Be Voter
By Tyler Mulhearn, PhD
We are talking politics today on the blog. Now, I know what you are thinking: news, sports, and clothing brands all seem to have political agendas nowadays. Now this ethics blog is getting political!? Rest assured, I am not writing this blog to discuss the ethics of one political issue or another or talk about a specific senate race. I am writing this blog today to discuss a political matter that has been perpetrated by both political parties and has negatively influenced American voters for decades: Attack ads.
With less than three weeks until the long-awaited midterm elections, it seems that nearly every commercial I am seeing is a political attack ad. This is not too surprising living in a state with a hotly contested senate seat. And, living close to the state border equates to double the attack ads to account for ads from the neighboring state. For many years, I have heard of others complain about “all of those attack ads” but never truly experienced them to this extent until this year. I get it. These ads are annoying, negative, difficult to evade, and often misleading. These attack ads are often intended to portray the political opponent as a greedy, ruthless individual that will do anything to get into or stay in office.
One recent morning, during the brief respite between the attack ad assaults displayed on my television, the national news show I was watching had Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska on the set to discuss his new book Them: Why We Hate Each Other—And How to Heal. Senator Sasse’s reflections were surprisingly refreshing in an era where it seems we’ve heard every take or analysis on the current political situation. The crux of his argument was that Americans are divided currently because political parties provide a social group to strongly identify with that was once occupied by other social institutions. In other words, we find comfort in identifying with a political group and adhering to this affiliation despite evidence that might contradict some of the beliefs held by that same group.
Sasse is not alone in his assessment of the current divided state of the union. To use an example from the other side of the political aisle, Cory Booker’s recent book United: Thoughts on Finding Common Ground and Advancing the Common Good discusses the possibility of a nation where individuals work together and display empathy and compassion for one another. Similar sentiments are evident in recent books by famed journalist Dan Rather (What Unites Us: Reflections on Patriotism) and renowned historian David McCullough (The American Spirit: Who We Are and What We Stand For). Although the approach or background might differ across these different books, the underlying theme remains largely the same: We can do better, as a nation, by working together.
Unfortunately, these political attack ads are doing nothing to help the situation. In fact, they are appealing to the worst human tendencies and emotions. In a recent study, my colleagues and I reviewed biases, or cognitive errors, that negatively impact decision making when people are faced with ethical dilemmas. Unsurprisingly, these political attack ads exemplify many of the same biases we identified as being detrimental to ethical decision making. For example, given the typical 30-second TV spot, political attack ads provide brief, one-sided messages on political opponents. Politicians, and humans more generally, make thousands of decisions, good and bad, every year. However, the creators of these attack ads hope the short, simple message will remain in voters’ minds through voting day.
Further, political attack ads often use tribal politics to their benefit by associating the political opponent with a hated member of the opposition party. In using this approach, it is likely hoped that the voter will fall victim to the bias of falling in line with their identified group or political party. One example that might come to mind here is, “Oh I can’t vote for [candidate’s name]. He/she works with or votes in line with [hated member of opposition party].”
Lastly, political attack ads often vilify or demonize the political opponent, sometimes making them sound downright evil. Portraying a political opponent as evil has several implications. For one, it perpetuates the belief that unethical or illegal acts are only committed by “monsters” or truly evil people. In reality, any individual in the wrong place and wrong state of mind can make a poor decision. Also, this portrayal of evil limits the opportunity to work with members of the opposing party to accomplish bipartisan wins.
Beyond playing to the worst human biases, do political attack ads actually work? One review study published in 2007 found that attack ads influence voter attitudes but may have little to no effect on actual voter behavior (the most important outcome in elections!). Also, the authors found some evidence that attack ads may actually weaken confidence in our governing systems. In other words, attack ads could be making the country a more cynical place.
Politics, like business, is messy. There are many stakeholders involved with competing interests and values. Every individual that comes to the table brings along their biases and errors in judgment. Sure, sometimes politicians and employees make poor decisions to advance their own selfish interests. More often the case, however, politicians and employees have good intentions, but they make poor decisions due to their biases or errors in judgment or due to external environmental factors. A greater understanding of the biases of oneself and others might ultimately help to bring about a more united and productive country.
Mulhearn, T. J., Watts, L. L., McIntosh, T. J., & Medeiros, K. E. (April, 2018). Measuring biases in ethical decision making: A novel approach to studying ethics. Poster presented at the 33rd annual conference of the Society for Industrial/Organizational Psychology, Chicago, IL.
Watts, L. L., Medeiros, K. E., McIntosh, T. J., Mulhearn, T. J., Patel, K. R., & Rothstein, E. (April, 2018). Biases in ethical decision making: A nomological network. Poster presented at the 33rd annual conference of the Society for Industrial/Organizational Psychology, Chicago, IL.
The Ethics Advantage Team