THE BLOG
09/30/2016 01:06 pm ET Updated Sep 30, 2017

The Neuroscience Of Negative Campaigns

Like many of you, I'm just about fed up with all the politics on social media this fall.

In my downtime, I often head to Facebook, usually scrolling with one hand while one of my children falls asleep in the other arm. I'm looking for something light -- parenting foibles, cat memes, heartwarming stories, the activities of that one co-worker who is always doing interesting things. What I'm not looking for is negativity, and that's all political social media posts are full of these days. The latest gaffe, news reports on how the gaffe wasn't really a gaffe, editorials on how the gaffe was a calculated ploy for media attention, a cartoon poking fun of that manipulation... it's exhausting.

But it's effective, and it works. And that's because our brains are wired to pay special attention to scary and negative stuff, and we can't help it. News and social media companies have figured that out, and the evidence is all around us.

A recent NPR report revealed that the American mind only has so much bandwidth for politics -- and we are all running on maximum right now. The media has a financial obligation to enhance viewership, and they're constantly seeking the attention of viewers. This is nothing new... but what's new is the size of the media, the number of media outlets, the number of people trying to make a living on telling others what's going on, and the platform size of everyone in the world.

Can't Fight the Fear Factor

So how do you capture someone's attention? Folks in the news have known the answer to this for a long time. I was just watching a rerun of How I Met Your Mother and Robin gets fed up with reporting falsely alarming news. She says something about how her job is to scare people into watching the nightly news and then we get loads of clips of exactly that. It's funny because it's true. Scary stuff gets our attention.

Whether you like it or not, no matter how refined your ability to react calmly to crazy situations, your body will betray you. The emotional part of your brain responds to those stimuli first -- while the logical part of your brain is trying to sort out whether it's worth worrying about, your heart beats faster and adrenal glands start pumping stress hormones, just in case you need to run. This is a great system for responding to a car rolling down our driveway way too fast when the toddler is in the yard, but is genuinely physically and emotionally exhausting when every commercial, Tweet, and Facebook post is trying to grab your attention with emotional content all day.

Your prefrontal cortex -- the rational part of your brain -- spends all day telling your limbic system -- the emotional part -- to stop overreacting, but like the parent of a toddler, it eventually wears out. This is why you're more likely to get in dumb arguments, fall off the dieting wagon, or make all sorts of lousy decisions later in the day. Add that to the priming effect in aggressive behavior research, which is basically the science that says when you irritate someone repeatedly, they just get angrier (my brother and I figured that one out early). As we scroll through our social media feeds late in the day, it's practically biologically destined for our political arguments with friends and colleagues to transform from well-researched debates to insults.

If It's Bad, I'd Better Pay Attention!

Every election season seems to come and go with calls for inspiration and positivity, but we get more and more of the opposite. It reminds me of a valuable lesson I learned in third grade: If enough people tell you the new kid in class smells bad, eventually you'll believe she smells bad, and you will get more popular for agreeing with everyone else. And you'll stick with that belief system -- unless you get paired up for a class project and discover that she doesn't stink and then you become best friends. There are a whole series of testable psychological effects at play here, the most important being confirmation bias.

But unlike the third grade, in politics, clever campaigns make it unlikely that we'll have an experience that changes our perceptions, shakes our belief system, and causes us to change course. They aren't going to give you a moment alone with the other candidate to find out anything different -- instead, they'll keep painting the other candidate in the most negative light possible and constantly reinforcing that perception.

And, much like paying attention to scary stuff, our brains pay special attention to negativity. We actually have a negativity bias, and while bad news can undermine a good mood, good news can rarely undermine a bad mood. In terms of our brain wiring, negative emotions trump positive emotions.

This negativity bias has been shown to affect our decision-making. For example, we overvalue perceived losses. While it might feel a little good if orange juice costs $1 less than usual, it actually causes us real pain if it costs $1 more than usual. When we perceive that we are suffering losses --or might possibly suffer a loss--we tend to overreact. In the grocery store that might result in things like overbuying orange juice when it's on sale, leading you to eventually throw out a full expired carton and losing more money in the long run. Avoiding losses will lead people to do all sorts of crazy things, like paying way more than $20 for a $20 bill. And avoiding a possible loss of something you value might change what you do in that voting booth in November.

In fact, the negativity bias has been shown to be particularly important in voting behavior. Negative attributes of the candidates, character weaknesses and negative information are more likely to inspire people to vote against a candidate than positives inspiring people to vote for a candidate. It's not surprising, therefore, that campaigns engage in mudslinging with abandon and that our social media sites are dominated with the ugliest stories imaginable. Our constant inundation with this negativity may even play a role in the unpopularity of our candidates -- the two most disliked candidates of all time.

Try to Stay Positive!

So what is to be done about all this negativity? Obviously we can't really control others' content beyond unfollowing a feed here and there, and as I've just told you, we have limited control over our own reactions to that content. You can try to counteract the emotional alarm bells of negativity by sharing positive stories and being mindful about what you pay attention to.

Also, you can exercise your prefrontal cortex by getting outside. Several recent studies, such as this one, have shown that natural environments will improve our executive-functioning and self regulation (the scientific jargon for controlling our impulses and thinking through our actions). Just make sure to put down the smart phone and soak in the nature while you're out there!

And help that exhausted prefrontal cortex fend off the fear and sadness by taking a nap!. Several studies, like this one, show that taking a nap can help consolidate emotional memory, so you can process this election season better.

Good luck breaking this cycle of political negativity that most of us can't help but fall into.