Your body doesn't lie: People ignore political ads of candidates they oppose

September 17, 2012 by Jeff Grabmeier, Ohio State University
Zheng Wang, assistant professor of communication at Ohio State University, demonstrates how she and her colleagues measured physiological responses to viewing presidental campaign ads. Credit: Kevin Fitzsimons

A recent study examined people's bodily responses while watching presidential campaign ads - and discovered another way that people avoid political information that challenges their beliefs.

In the last days of the 2008 campaign, researchers had people watch a variety of actual for Republican presidential candidate and his Democratic rival while the viewers' , skin conductance and activation of were monitored.

The results showed that partisan participants reacted strongly to ads featuring their favored candidate, but barely responded to ads featuring the rival candidate.

In comparison, people who didn't favor one candidate over the other showed similar physiological response patterns and intensity to ads for both Obama and McCain.

This suggests that partisan participants weren't really paying attention to the ads featuring the candidate they opposed even as they watched them, said Zheng Wang, lead author of the study and assistant professor of communication at Ohio State University.

"If people are exposed to information in ads regarding a candidate they oppose, they respond by basically tuning out," Wang said.

"A lot of research has shown that, behaviorally, we tend to selectively expose ourselves to information that reinforces our existing opinions. But this study further suggests that even when exposed to information, our attention to what is presented is highly selective, as well," she said.

Wang co-authored the study with Alyssa Morey, a graduate student in communication at Ohio State, and Jatin Srivastava, an assistant professor at Ohio University. Their results appear in a recent issue of the journal .

The study involved 15 college students who came to Wang's laboratory in October 2008. They were hooked up with electrodes that measured four : heart rate, skin conductance (a way to measure sweating, which is related to how stimulated and alert the person is), and muscle movements around the cheekbone and around the eyebrows.

Research has shown that these physiological responses, taken together, indicate emotional responses and attention levels, Wang said.

While hooked up to the electrodes, each participant watched 12 campaign ads - six for Obama and six for McCain - while their physiological reactions were recorded.

After watching the ads, the students filled out measures of how positively and negatively they regarded Obama and McCain in general.

The physiological measures used in the study revealed how much the viewers were paying attention and how they were reacting emotionally to ad content that was positive, negative, more emotionally arousing and less emotionally arousing.

For example, a lower heart rate suggests that the viewer is taking in information and paying more attention to the ad, while a higher heart rate suggests the viewer is not focused on the ads. The muscles in the face also indicate how much attentional effort a person is making.

In one key analysis of the study, the researchers used what they called a dynamical feedback model to see how the different ad factors interacted with the viewers' partisan leanings to influence their physiological reactions over time.

"At any one time, ad viewers' reactions are affected not just by what they are seeing at that exact moment, but also by what came before in the ad," Wang said. "The dynamical feedback model puts it all together to see how people react in a real-time, real-world way."

For supporters of a particular candidate, the feedback model suggests that the positive feelings that viewers have are amplified as they watch an ad for their candidate, Wang said. But for opponents, the feedback effects actually seem to decrease their response over time as they watch the ad - in essence, they tune out, she said.

"When we integrate all of the ad message inputs into this dynamical system of the viewer's mind, we find the response of supporters is intensified, while the opponents become nonresponsive," she said.

The results also suggest that it isn't easy to predict how simple ad categories - such as positive ads versus negative ones - will affect viewers.

"The ad message is only part of the story because it interacts with how individuals process the ad," she said.

"In addition, one negative ad is very different from another negative ad, in terms of their content dynamics and how people react over time. And a 60-second version of an ad can have quite different effects from a 30-second version of the same ad. How people react to ads is a very complex and dynamic process."

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5 / 5 (4) Sep 17, 2012
People tune out information they don't want to hear? I saw that in action daily with my grandparents - over 60 years ago.
1 / 5 (4) Sep 17, 2012
For all the continued, politically motivated attacks on teachers, the same question can be put to students! Where is the evidence they pay attention to their teachers? The conventionally best teachers in the world never got students who were determined not to pay attention to pay attention! The article doesn't show any recommendations for how to get non responsive viewers responsive. The "researchers", basically, take it for granted that, if a personnis against you, they're not going to cut you any slack! Yet yeachers are supposed to penetrate that wall and teach a lesson at the same time! The "education" system claims there are these superior teachers out there who get through, so why not pull them in to make these commericals? It seems a utterly, and tellingly egregious lapse for "science" never to have examined student metabolisms while in class!
3 / 5 (2) Sep 17, 2012
Give me a break. Political ads do not contain ANY useful information. Study after study shows that nearly all political advertising is almost entirely misleading or false. From both sides of the isle.

Saying that not listening to ads, any ads, means that people are not open to information challenging their beliefs is based on the premise that ads contain any useful information to be ignored.
1 / 5 (2) Sep 17, 2012
How many times had the participants in this survey seen comparable ads, either for or against, a particular candidate?
I think this was not a scientific survey, but merely a sampling of voter opinion well into a campaign.
I wonder how many times any of the polled voters actually used the mute button. I do... all the time.
My rule now is: If the candidate is not up front accepting the content as his/her own, I reach for the control and mute the garbage. Because, THAT is what it is.
Hey, little peckers... what do you think of that?
2.3 / 5 (3) Sep 17, 2012
I'm sure there would be similar responses if we had religious test groups watching different church services or musical test groups wherein we had them listen to different musical genres. I'm thinking this is one of those pork barrel studies that was given a little too much fat for the sake of the coming election.
1 / 5 (3) Sep 18, 2012
Give me a break. Political ads do not contain ANY useful information. Study after study shows that nearly all political advertising is almost entirely misleading or false. From both sides of the isle.

There are NO such studies that state what you did.

You've taken the data to an ILlogical extreme and made it false.

The truthfulness of all ads vary.

It's ironic that while ads often do exaggerate, they rarely go as far as you did in exaggerating as you did when you dismissed them all as misleading or false.

The reason why your belief is wrong is lying isn't a winning strategy when trying to gain favor with the "middle/undecided" that decides elections.

You can get away with a lie or distortions to your base, but to just wholesale lie in a general election will lose someone the election.

And hate him or love him, Romney is learning that lesson right now as falsehoods that play well with his base are boomeranging when told to the middle/undecided voters.
3 / 5 (2) Sep 18, 2012
"we tend to selectively expose ourselves to information that reinforces our existing opinions"
...which is a constant danger to a healthy society.
Racism will probably go on existing for a looong time.
Politics will keep getting polarised.
New ideas will get ignored.
not rated yet Sep 18, 2012
Perhaps this suggests a new strategy for election campaigns. Stealth advertising, in which it isn't immediately apparent who is being promoted (or denigrated).

Perhaps I shouldn't have mentioned it - I like being able to rapidly identify any and all political ads, so I can quickly switch channels.
3 / 5 (2) Sep 18, 2012
Just go to
5 / 5 (1) Sep 18, 2012
Best way to ignore political ads... Toss your boob-tube.
1 / 5 (6) Sep 18, 2012
Just go to

Another leftwing source. Ever note how many "fact""checks" are critical of the right, and so few are about the left? Not a coincidence. This is true for every "fact""checker", including the NY Times and the Washington Post. So-called "pinnochio"s are based almost always on the "checker's" opinion, having little to do with "facts".

Cue the "facts have a liberal bias" lie in 3...2...1...
5 / 5 (2) Sep 18, 2012
ver note how many "fact""checks" are critical of the right, and so few are about the left? Not a coincidence.

Or it could just be that one side is a lot more demagogic/prone to lying than the other.

Historically those that aren't out for your best interests tend to be the ones that lie a lot. So you're right. There's certainly no coincidence, here.
1 / 5 (6) Sep 18, 2012
...Romney is learning that lesson right now as falsehoods that play well with his base are boomeranging when told to the middle/undecided voters.

Let me guess - you're an Obama suppporter? Wow, I must have ESPN.

That's why you can't see the lies, distortions, spin, misquotes and fairy tales in his ads, not because they're all so honest.

Like the lie that oil production is up because of his policies, when the truth is that he only controls production on federal land, which is way down under him, while the increase is all due to drilling on private lands.

Like the lie that ObamaCare won't cover illegals and won't add a dime to the deficit.

Like the lie that he didn't take $700 billion from Medicare to fund ObamaCare.

Like the lie that Paul Ryan wants to take away granny's Medicare, when his plan only affects people 55 or younger and even after that everyone can choose the option of regular Medicare or other plans, the same choices that Congress now has.
3 / 5 (4) Sep 18, 2012
Poor Mitty... the only time his right foot is not in his mouth is when the left foot has that occupancy. What a dimwit.

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