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Do Negative Communications Influence Us More than Positive Ones?

At the time of writing, US Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has just got himself into deep water by stating that the rival candidate for his party’s nomination, John McCain, is no war hero. McCain, Trump said, “was a war hero because he was captured. I like people that weren’t captured.” For those unaware of McCain’s background, he was a pilot who was shot down during the Vietnam War and ended up as a prisoner-of-war. He was badly treated during his incarceration but still turned down the offer of an early release. Trump’s comments were widely condemned from across the political spectrum, but as an exercise in communication studies, they raise an important issue about the effectiveness of ‘going negative.’

The issue of negativity in political campaigning appears during every election in the US. At the beginning of each cycle, candidates announce that they intend to run a ‘clean campaign,’ but this nearly always degenerates into mudslinging and personal attacks. But how effective is this latter tactic? According to the American government and politics website thisnation.com, negative advertisements can and do work. The site says that while campaign professionals advocate never going negative ‘unless you have to,’ there are nevertheless instances when this approach is a sound strategy. One example is when a candidate is unable to win simply by presenting positive information about themselves. When they struggle to do so, they can, it says, close the gap by maligning their opponents.

The effectiveness of ‘bad mouthing’ others has been backed up by research cited by the International Coach Federation. The organisation revealed that negativity is more contagious than positivity, with our attitudes being more heavily influenced by bad news than good news. Perhaps the best example of the influence of negativity is the statistic that consumers will tell twice as many people about their poor customer service experiences than their good ones (as cited by retailcustomerexperience.com).The International Coach Federation also highlighted research that analysed language for its negativity bias. It showed that there are more negative emotional words than positive words in the English dictionary (32% positive compared to 62% negative).

So does the knowledge that we are influenced more by negativity than positivity make for depressing news? Well, this isn’t necessarily the whole picture. In the largest-ever study of language and its emotional capacity that was published last year by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA (PNAS), it was reported that the most commonly used words across a wide range of cultures are more likely to carry positive connotations than negative ones. The journal reiterated what has been termed the ‘Pollyanna hypothesis’ that says that humans gain a huge amount of pleasure when socialising, so human communication has a tendency to be happy. This sort of ‘big data,’ the publication reported, is becoming increasingly important in the study of social networks, their impact on society and their influence on the individual. When we look at this finding through the prism of our trade, we can see that it is bound to pique the interest of marketers and communications professionals.

And what about Donald Trump’s comments? As it stands, he is facing a severe backlash from those even in his own party. It looks like there are limits to being negative – even in the political sphere – particularly when in doing so you impugn the integrity of someone who has sacrificed a great deal for their country. This, I believe, can only be a good thing.