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June 6th, 2008
08:30 AM ET

Fear on TV, and in the voting booth

Clinton campaign headquarters in Billings, Montana on June 3, 2008 as polls closed.
Clinton campaign headquarters in Billings, Montana on June 3, 2008 as polls closed.

Randi Kaye
AC360° Correspondent

You've heard plenty of politics, but how about this one mixing politics with psychology. It’s really cool. And it’s very personal.

We gathered a group of 8 undecided voters to see how they respond to attack ads and how the ads might affect their choice of candidate. We all met at Emory University in Atlanta, where psychologist Drew Westen studies how voters' brains react to candidates' messages, including attack ads.

Westen says fear-based attack ads are effective because they tap into the voters’ subconscious. He predicted voters would tell us they didn’t like these ads, and that the ads didn’t have any impact on them. Well, guess what. He was right. That is what our group told us. When they watched Hillary Clinton’s 3 a-m ad, which was designed to make voters question Obama’s experience, they said it did not make them doubt him. But their brain told us something else.

The results show the ads do work. Westen says even though our conscious self doesn’t like the ad, our subconscious responds to it. The ad gets deep in there.


How does Westen know this? He and his business partner have developed software that measures voters’ subconscious. They do so by measuring their reaction time to certain key words after watching attack ads. The slightest hesitation means the word registered with their subconscious, and the ad worked. They use words like “weak,” “inexperienced” and “poor judgment.”

I took the test myself. I don’t want to reveal the specifics of my results because that’s just too personal, but I will tell you I was quite surprised. My conscious and subconscious were at odds which was pretty bizarre. Trust me on that one. Turns out, the ad I was tested on did make me doubt the candidate even though I thought it had zero impact.

Bottom line, it's probably your subconscious - not your views on policy - telling you which lever to pull in the voting booth.

Editor's note: See Randi’s report on the psychology of fear tonight on AC360° at 10p ET.


Filed under: Randi Kaye • Raw Politics
soundoff (12 Responses)
  1. Michael

    Objectively speaking, if the attack ads are consistent with any documentaries I can find on the delegate, or are consistent with any unease I may feel from listening to him/her, the ads will only serve to legitimatize the suspicions, feelings or beliefs I already have.

    I for one, pay more heed to the body language, eyes, and what my gut says, than the rhetoric politicians typically spew to win votes. The only exception being, if the politician says things that are so contrary to mainstream, that what's said could be injurious to their wellbeing; such as with things Ron Paul proposed while running. Bring down the Federal Reserve & I.R.S.? Bankers and the elite behind the government naturally wouldn't favor a man who desired to bring down the Federal Reserve, and very few Americans questioned the medias censoring of him. So much for commonsense.

    People were quick however, to buy into charisma and views on policy even when presented with evidence that should've outweighed both; e.g., Obama's claims to have an uncle that aided in the liberation of Auschwitz prisoners; A claim found to be both a lie, and inconsistent with documented history.

    Many of similar mindsets, would vote for Hillary; dismissing entirely, her denied presence at the Bilderberg meetings, the bilking of senior citizens by both her and Bill, in their real-estate dealings, and the more than controversial body count between the pair; all of which were dismissed as suicides, by a coroner with a vested interest.

    So it would seem that attack ads would have little bearing; for if they had as much impact as studies indicate, there'd of been no need to censor one congressman; rather, invalidate him with "attack ads;" but the media apparently didn't want to chance this type of campaign's failing.

    As for the fear factor, I we're mixing Apples and Oranges. The "Fear Mongering," seems to be used more-so, in an attempt to distract the public from both, equally important issues, and from seeking the truth; rather than accept what the media and politicians repeat daily, as gospel. Hence the term "sheep."

    Show me studies on the ability to detect honesty. Studies to indicate whether people are more apt to follow the pack; e.g. voting for who's popular, or more likely to win. Show me studies to discern how much the trait of charisma plays in their vote even when the politician is lying. Show me studies that'll reveal how many Americans are actually capable of completely dismissing what the mainstream media and friends say, to make an INFORMED choice; then, we'll be getting somewhere.

    Seems to me, that the public has been given 2 sides of the same coin to choose from; a choice that will mistakenly leave many Americans with the feeling that, "the people have spoken;" when in reality, the choices were already made for us. This is indicated by the deliberate censoring, and in some instances, the intentional exclusion of, one Texas congressman. Is it coincidental that it's the one who's views were inconsistent with the mainstream media and wealthy, was also the one censored? I don't think so

    June 6, 2008 at 7:23 pm |
  2. Susie

    This exactly how the war in Iraq started. Bush created this fear in America so they will support his decision to go to war. There might be some truth about the ads but if you are open minded person and smart you know that this kind of advertisement are very foolish and misleading.
    Canada for Obama

    June 6, 2008 at 6:24 pm |
  3. Trudy in Peoria

    Okay, then explain why Hillary won Pennsylvania, after Obama outspent her 3 to 1 on political advertising. Not buyin' it.

    June 6, 2008 at 4:47 pm |
  4. Janet, 60+White Female American via Canada

    Fear mongering ads, only prove to me that those putting them out, are the ones with the Greatest Fear of All!

    Even as a child, and I taught my children, strip down everything you see, hear and read. Make your own judgement, even with me.

    We must have constructive discussion, as a group of individuals, and our family had what we called "The Round Table Meetings"! Therefore, all opinions were heard!

    June 6, 2008 at 3:40 pm |
  5. TESAP. SAVANNAH, GA

    Very true Nadene, I think we should also ask "why" about the negative ads, especially the ones who run negative ads first.... I think the saying goes... Ye who casts the first stone..........................

    June 6, 2008 at 2:33 pm |
  6. Nadene

    Your conclusion that it is our subconscious, rather than our views on policy, that determines the way we vote, is rather dubious. A rational person can overcome his/her subconscious feelings through knowledge and rumination of facts and ideas. If some Americans vote based only on what they hear in ads, that's pretty sad. There is so much information available out there to form your own opinion.

    I have a couple of other thoughts...Has anyone ever compared how negative political ads affect our brains vs. positive ads? I would be interested to see the difference. One more thing, are negative ads, for the most part, a non-issue? How many people are really affected by negative ads? What about people who turn off negative ads by changing the channel or shutting off the tv when an ad like that comes on tv? I think we should always question the relevance of any study.

    June 6, 2008 at 1:02 pm |
  7. Loretta from California

    Attack ads only affect the weak minded, easily led, or easily influenced. They have no effect what-so-ever, and are not persuasive for the INDEPENDANT THINKERS.

    June 6, 2008 at 12:20 pm |
  8. Lilibeth

    The main thing is to look at attack ads, or any ads for that matter, with a grain of salt. These ads prey on gullible voters and that’s what got us in trouble…that’s why we’re in this mess now. To all voters, please don’t let the politics of fear and hate get to you. We’re smarter than that.

    June 6, 2008 at 12:12 pm |
  9. CaseyJPS - California

    Randi-
    I've been looking forward to this report. I think it would have a more meaningful impact if you shared your own experience. I understand the need to separate reporting from your life, especially considering the challenge of remaining un-biased. However, I can't help but think that passion would drive a correspondent/reporter/journalist to put "both feet in" at times.

    June 6, 2008 at 11:19 am |
  10. seah

    Any one with common sense. No mental problems. It will not effect.

    It has less effect than Obama mind manipulation and mind controlling tactics that have been proven to work on people, as did with Hitler and the people of Germany, Jim Jones followers and other cults. Should that come under scrutinies also?

    June 6, 2008 at 10:09 am |
  11. Annie Kate

    So attack ads work – that's not the greatest news as we may see a lot more of them now. Attack ads are my least favorite part of politics. That they are effective doesn't surprise me though – the two political ads that pop into my head for this political season so far is that unknown person who was running and stressing fear of terrorism with the capitol blowing up behind him – I'm not sure I remember it because it scared me or because I laughed so hard at it, but hey I do remember it. The other ad I remember right off is a McCain ad with his mother – I guess thats the aw! factor there.

    Wish there was a way to take that test online. It would be really interesting to see what results I would have.

    Thanks for this story – this is really interesting.

    Annie Kate
    Birmingham AL

    June 6, 2008 at 9:25 am |
  12. Cindy

    I will listen to everything that each candidate says and judge them on their stance on the issues and which one that I think will do a better job at getting this nation turned back around in the right direction.

    Any fear mongering doesn't work at all on me. Because the reality is that they by themselves can't do or change anything . They rely on congress to pass things and to get things done. So why let a little thing like fear get in the way of making the right decision for the president. Congress always keeps them in check.

    Cindy....Ga.

    June 6, 2008 at 8:45 am |