Election season in America means a constant bombardment of political ads by candidates and numerous special interest groups, some credible, some not. But rather than make the candidates’ positions clearer, many of these ads leave voters feeling confused. That’s because viewers and listeners are more likely to remember what was said about the candidates than they are to recall the source, a new study has found.
The study at the University of Arkansas involved some 80 participants who, over a period of five days, received information from three different sources about a fictitious Republican candidate.
They were first presented with the candidate’s actual positions on the issues and later with information about him, either from a source that was identified as a liberal political satirist or a voter education group.
Some of the information presented by the latter two was accurate; some was erroneous. When participants returned two days later, they were asked to identify only those statements that had been presented by the candidate himself.
To their surprise, researchers said, the “voters” attributed more than half of the inaccurate statements from the satirist and nonprofit group to the candidate. Those who received the incorrect information from the satirist misattributed 68 percent of it. Those who learned their inaccuracies from the nonprofit group attributed 80 percent of them to the political hopeful.
“It’s surprising how many people were influenced” by the sources other than the candidate, said Jim Lampinen, an assistant professor of psychology and lead researcher on the project.
The results underscored something psychologists know to be true generally, however. When asked to remember both specific information and where they heard it, people are likely to forget the source faster than the content.
By planting information about a candidate in voters’ minds, advocacy groups both for and against a candidate affect voters’ views and, perhaps ultimately, the way they vote, Lampinen said. By remaining alert when they watch or listen to political campaign ads — and checking to see where the information originates — voters can get closer to the truth, researchers concluded.
Their findings are echoed by media analysts, who have always advocated that strict attention be paid to negative ads. “Look at the small print at the end of the ad,” advised Robert Kubey, director of media studies at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J., during a recent interview. “Was it put out by the G.W. Bush campaign or a political action committee? It matters because they have a different latitude to say things.”
Nevertheless, the Arkansas study points not only to voters’ apparent willingness to accept misinformation from a source they perceive as being reliable — the voter education group, in this case — but also from a source with low credibility, represented by the satirist.
“It’s a hard problem,” said Lampinen, who added that participants who wanted to make up their minds on an issue rather than mulling it over were even more likely to make abrupt decisions without considering their sources of information. For them, biased sources were less important than coming to a decision quickly and moving on, he said.
The researchers presented their findings this summer at the annual meeting of the Society for Applied Research in Memory and Cognition.