Friday 22 November 2019 4:05 am

Want to win an election? Throw the kitchen sink at your opponent

Dan Berry is head of behavioural science at Hill+Knowlton Strategies.

The received wisdom goes that campaign messages should be as to-the-point as possible.

“Keep it simple, stupid” originated in engineering, but it is credited with Barack Obama’s 2008 “change” message and Vote Leave’s successful “take back control” campaign in 2016.

Certainly, both the main parties in this election seem to be sticking to this principle, with the Conservatives repeating the slogan “Get Brexit done” at every opportunity, and Labour reverting to its message of saving the NHS whenever possible.

And behavioural science would seem to back up this truism of electoral campaigning, 

We know that seemingly irrelevant cognitive biases impact important decisions we think we’re making in a rational and reflective manner. For example, we tend to feel the pain of a loss of something more than the equivalent gain, we’re all a bit too confident in our own abilities, and we’re influenced when making judgements by how readily examples come to mind rather than just facts. 

To these well-known cognitive biases, add another one: argument dilution effect. When we’re making judgments based on a lot of information, the details of that information start to average out. Considering an onslaught of less relevant details right alongside the fundamental information turns the latter into white noise. 

For example, a study in the scientific journal Nature showed that seeing more medication side effects makes patients evaluate drugs as less harmful. Patients were more likely to favour a drug when its minor side effects, such as risk of headache, were mentioned alongside more major side effects, such as risk of heart attack.

Other studies demonstrate a similar effect in assessing the guilt of suspects on trial, and how consumers make judgments about brands. But so far, no one has studied the argument dilution effect in politics. So should campaigns stick to the simple fundamentals or not — and what happens when they don’t?

To find out, we conducted an experiment with 1,000 voters, showing two different groups tweets by the same politician. Each began the same, with a sentence you might see in a typical candidate’s tweet, such as “If reelected, I will bring high quality jobs to our area and ensure that we have the best schools and colleges”. 

For one group, we appended that standard message with a largely irrelevant sentence, such as “I will never be even a minute late to work. I will take turns getting coffee and breakfast for my assistant”.

When it came to qualification, commitment to winning, and likelihood of representing “people like you”, each group rated the candidate equally. But the diluted tweet with irrelevant statements about coffee and breakfast made respondents rate the candidate as about 20 per cent less likely to win. They were also less likely to watch or read about the candidate. 

So far so good, in terms of conforming to conventional intuition that voters are more convinced by shorter messages that stick to the fundamentals and don’t distract. 

However, the effects were reversed with similarly appended statements geared at attacking their opponent. 

One group saw the tweet “My opponent in the upcoming election has no experience in public office and has never served in our Armed Forces”, and the second group saw that with the following added: “He admits to rarely if ever recycling his newspapers and used plastic bottles. He even failed his history exams — twice!” 

You’d be excused for expecting the longer, diluted attack to strike the voter as irrelevant, and consequently off-putting. But no. The diluted message made people think the opponent was about 15 per cent less likely to win and less likely to represent “people like you”.  

Of course, more study is needed. But our experiment suggests that campaign strategists, while right to stick to simple slogans when promoting their candidate, might do well to get more creative when attacking opponents — a “kitchen sink” approach appears to do more damage.

Main image credit: Getty

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