Research news

Research news

Substantial funding from the Velux Foundation for project on the impact of political messages

In modern society, voters have to deal with messages from politicians and other opinion formers on a daily basis. And while some of these messages have a decisive influence on the voters’ opinions, others do not. But what determines whether a message makes an impact or not?

From the field of psychology we have learned that there are certain means by which we can prompt a greater reaction in humans. However, we know surprisingly little about how political communication works and what determines the successful persuasion of voters. Backed by a grant of almost DKK 6 million donated by the Velux Foundation, Associate Professor Michael Bang Petersen and Assistant Professor Lene Aarøe from Aarhus University will be researching the relation between our psychology and the effects of political communication.

We are still governed by Stone Age psychology

The starting point for the research project entitled “How to Win With Words” is the notion that the human psychology that governs our contemporary minds today is basically no different than the psychology of our ancestors on the East African savannah. For example, it is instincts from the past that cause us to react more severely to loss compared to when we experience gain. 

“If you have lived under such rough conditions as we did back when we had to struggle every day to procure food and nourishment, when we were utterly dependent on other members of our tribe, then you will find that the experience of loss far outweighs the joy of gaining something,” explains Michael Bang Petersen.

If we extend this logic to the modern world and its political messages, it is to be expected that politicians will be more successful and have more impact if they focus on negative information. This was, for instance, what the former prime minister of Denmark, Lars Løkke Rasmussen, did when he launched the abolition of the welfare reform. In this process, he focused on all the things that could go wrong if the reform was not abolished, rather than speaking about the tax reliefs that would also result from it.

Humans appeal more to us than graphs and statistics

The researchers intend to investigate yet another aspect of the human psychology: It is easier for us to relate to other people than to abstract representations of the world, such as graphs and statistics.

“When politicians make an effort to promote their political convictions, does it have a different effect on voters if the politicians know which psychological buttons to push?” asks Petersen and offers an example of when Barack Obama was trying to sign the Health Care Act (also known as ObamaCare):

“Obama had brought different people with him, who told their own stories using arguments such as: If only this reform had been passed, this wouldn’t have happened to my dad - or I wouldn’t have been in this situation. In this way, by attaching the issues to people of flesh and blood, Obama made the problems and arguments tangible. And that is how you make a significant impact on people.”

In light of our knowledge of the human psychological makeup, Obama’s tactic was very effective, precisely because, rather than offering abstract statistics that would be hard to relate to, he gave people a concrete representation of the consequences and benefits of the reform. The researchers have thus set out to prove or disprove this hypothesis.

Gaining new methodological ground

In addition to being theoretically innovative, the project also aims to gain new ground in terms of methodology. The researchers want to examine whether these fundamental psychological mechanisms, that politicians can learn to appeal to, are universal and apply to people in different countries. The aim is therefore to gather data from both Denmark and the U.S.

The research will be based on questionnaires and on laboratory experiments that take place in the U.S. as well as in the Cognition and Behavior Lab at Aarhus University. Here, the researchers will measure the physiological reactions of the test subjects upon watching fake news pieces, which, in order to seem as authentic as possible, have been developed in collaboration with professional journalists.

Michael Bang Petersen and Lene Aarøe are associated with the Interacting Minds Centre at Aarhus University. In the U.S. they collaborate with various research groups led by, for instance, John Hibbing from the University of Nebraska, Lincoln and Kevin Arceneaux from Temple University.

Further info

Michael Bang Petersen, Associate professor and PhD
Department of Political Science and Government
Aarhus University, School of Business and Social Sciences
T: +45 8716 5729