New research shows name-calling in politics tends to backfire

Findings from a new study show that name-calling in politics often has the opposite of the intended effect, with respondents rating the abuser negatively after witnessing the derogatory remark. In addition, the survey found an unexpected similarity in how Republicans and Democrats responded to name-calling from candidates, with both sides blaming Democrats for using it.

The research has been published in Journal of elections, public opinion and parties.

Evidence of name-calling in politics can be found throughout American history. For example, Thomas Jefferson described President John Adams as “A blind, bald, crippled, toothless man who is a hideous hermaphrodite without the strength and shape of a man or the gentleness and sensitivity of a woman.” Modern political candidates may not be so eloquent in their insults, but the practice continues enthusiastically; despite this, research on its impact is limited.

To address this shortcoming, Aaron Dusso and Sydnee Perkins conducted an online survey of 2,016 Americans to determine the effect of name-calling on how people rated a group of fictional candidates after reading a news report about a campaign rally. .

These fictional stories were incorporated at different points in a longer investigation. For example, the stories included a political candidate calling his opponent “heartless” or “twisted”. The polls varied “(1) whether or not to use a pejorative, (2) the gender of the aggressor, (3) the gender of the victim, and secondarily the (4) partisanship of the two candidates.” After reading their randomly assigned stories, participants rated the contestant on a scale of 1 to 100.

Data analysis revealed that participants tended to criticize the attackers, while the targets of the slurs suffered no reputational damage. The research also found a notable discrepancy in how Republicans and Democrats rate attackers from outside the party. Democratic participants consistently disapproved of candidates who used slurs, regardless of political party, while Republicans only disapproved of Democrats using offensive language, but not their own supporters using the same approach.

Insults in politics can be counterproductive since voters tend to blame the abuser rather than the target for using it. This was especially true when Democrats used name-calling. Democrats and Republicans tend to rate Democratic candidates lower when they use profanity than when they don’t. Also, being the victim of slurs has no negative repercussions, and gender does not affect the backlash a person may face for using slurs.

The findings are in line with a previous study, which found that Donald Trump’s nickname for his rival Joe Biden (“Sleepy Joe”) had little impact.

This new investigation has substantial implications for the examination of incivility in politics. It reveals an unequivocal backlash against those responsible for incivility and virtually no evidence that the assaults are “successful”. Dusso and Perkins conclude, “The findings presented here also have implications for research on incivility and negativity in politics.”

“This is particularly the case because we show a clear backlash against perpetrators with little evidence that attacks ‘work’ significantly to reduce victim ratings. This research adds another important finding that individuals generally do not reward incivility.

The study, “Crooked Hillary and Sleepy Joe: The Reverse Effect of Name-Swearing on Candidate Evaluations,” was authored by Aaron Dusso and Sydnee Perkins.

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