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Are we really sick of those political ads?

Friday, September 28, 2012
posted by Rita Handrich

New research would say we probably just think we’re sick of them, but they really have little impact unless we support the candidate. The researchers say that when we are listening to an ad for ‘our’ candidate, our positive feelings are amplified during the commercial. If we are listening to an ad for our candidate’s opponent, we simply tune out and become non-responsive. The research is very preliminary but anyone who has spent time observing and studying jury deliberations knows just how true this research finding is for triers of fact. It’s just another example of how people typically conduct research in daily life: Draw your results curve, and then find data points that fit it, ignoring the others.

We may well complain as the airwaves (and the internet) become choked with political ads–negative and otherwise–but like jurors hearing your case–if we disagree, we tune out and think of Ireland [Ahh– Ireland… I feel better already…]. Or something else.

People selectively focus on information that reinforces their preexisting opinions, a phenomenon that feeds what we call ‘confirmatory bias’. We do not carefully weigh the evidence in most of our decisions. If we perceive that there are missing pieces in your case narrative– they gaps will be filled with whatever  infer belongs there, based on our own ideas and predilections. And we are all quite certain that we are individually much, much better than others at detecting who is a liar by just watching their nonverbal behavior. The list goes on and on and on. The truth often is that your facts just don’t seem to matter. 

It can be very frustrating to present your case to a group of mock jurors and then hear them express what seem to be very distorted versions of what you just said during deliberations. We often see our attorney-clients throwing up their hands and saying “I did not say that!”. When this happens, what it means is that what the attorney did say, set off an alarm in the mind of that mock juror and they tuned out. It’s much much better to have that happen pretrial when you have time to fix it, rather than to have it happen at trial when you don’t know it’s happening.

So when you find yourself growing irritated at the political ads endlessly airing on your television–remember that you are having your preexisting beliefs challenged. Or more likely at this point in the cycle, your beliefs are being bludgeoned. That’s what happens for jurors too. Let this season’s aggravation serve as a cautionary tale as you plan for your next argument– whether it’s in front of a judge or a jury.

Zheng Wang, Alyssa C. Morey, & Jatin Srivastava (2012). Motivated Selective Attention During Political Ad Processing: The Dynamic Interplay Between Emotional Ad Content and Candidate Evaluation. Communication Research DOI: 10.1177/0093650212441793


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