Why Personal Attacks Are Good Politics

Political debates about policy have been mired in the same routine for years. One side proposes a policy and the opposition protests. Policy opponents will often claim that the person pushing the policy is motivated by some nefarious mission, the idea being that attacking a person can help sway opinion on the policies associated with them. That’s why Mitt Romney attempts to cut taxes only because he hates the poor and Barack Obama attempts to extend unemployment benefits only because he wants people to be dependent on the government.

The weakness of personal attacks is that they are trumped by policy. If the president successfully enacts a policy that helps people, what that reveals about his character and motivations will override whatever the attacks claim about him.

Or so it would seem. A new paper forthcoming in Cognition argues that a politician can be seen as doing the right thing while simultaneously being viewed as a bad person for doing it. For example, people could see Obama choosing to extend unemployment benefits as the morally correct decision, but still think less of him personally for raising the deficit to do it. If that’s the case, the optimal opposition strategy in the face of a popular policy may be personal attacks rather than policy arguments.

The paper reports on three experiments led by Eric Luis Uhlmann in which participants were presented with moral dilemmas. For example, a hospital administrator in a poor country could spend $2 million on a life-saving operation for a little boy or on medical equipment that could eventually save 500 lives. (The latter choice is called the “consequentialist” act because it focuses on maximizing the consequences rather than on the act itself.) Half the participants were told the administrator chose the operation, while half were told the administrator chose the equipment. Half of each group was then asked to rate the administrator’s actions and half was asked to rate the administrator’s character.

The researchers found that the decision to buy the equipment was rated as more positive than the decision to do the operation, but when the administrator chose to buy the equipment he was personally rated more negatively than when he chose to do the operation. Doing the right thing made him seem like a worse person.

Why do we think this way? One theory is that the gravity of the decision to allow a single death reveals a disturbing lack of empathy even if the decision will ultimately save more lives.

Upholding consequentialist moral principles by sacrificing one person to save many can require suppressing the empathy naturally elicited by identifiable victims. Even in the absence of mixed motives, empathic suppression led to negative character attributions based on consequentialist acts (Studies 2 and 3).

Here’s how the study helps explain some of the dynamics that paralyze the American political process. The backbone of good public policy is the act of screwing over a small population for the greater good. Almost no policies benefit everybody, but if you can create a relatively large benefit for a small cost you should do it, and the idea is that voters will understand what you did and like you. However, if people can acknowledge you created good policy while simultaneously thinking less of you for it, that’s an enormous disincentive to create good policy. And because almost all good policy involves screwing somebody, it’s not hard for people to come up with a reason to think less of you for it, especially when your opposition is constantly on every TV network explaining why you’re a bad person. Suddenly the 10% of people who are screwed by your policy are trumping the 90% of people your policy helps. At the end of the day it becomes better for your personal reputation to do nothing.

This is obviously a very narrow view of how politicians govern, how minority interests exert influence, and how people form political opinions, but there is a compelling case that at the margin the disconnect between moral judgments of action and character helps incentivize inaction.

Uhlmann, E., Zhu, L., & Tannenbaum, D. (2012). When it takes a bad person to do the right thing Cognition DOI: 10.1016/j.cognition.2012.10.005


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