The Little Tale of The UK Referendum, The US Election, and The Positive Psychologist

Advertisers and political campaign managers are very good at exploiting a characteristic of the human brain that traps us into patterns of thinking and feeling that suit them without our even being aware of it. The human brain has a sneaky preference for taking positive events in its stride without paying much attention and, all else being equal, only making us aware of negative things: bad news, danger, threat.

Enter negative political campaigning. Academics define negative campaigning as emphasizing your opponents’ weaknesses, and positive campaigning as promoting your own strengths. Negative campaigning works so well because our brains naturally latch onto to the negatives, so in attention terms, criticising an opponent’s weaknesses can swamp our awareness of their strengths.

It’s obvious from even a cursory look some/much of the UK/EU Referendum campaigns of both sides have been characterised by blasting each others’ weaknesses. Indeed according to James Knightley, Senior Economist at ING, both sides’ assumptions and assertions contain inaccurate claims.

But this piece is about the psychology of it, not the merits of the arguments. And I do have another couple of points.

It’s long been an old saw of positive thinking proponents that positive US Presidential election campaigns almost always win. In the 50 plus US Presidential Elections since Lincoln got in unopposed in 1789 (56 so far) they claim more than 90% have been carried by the more positive campaign. It turns out that there is a lot of truth in this. (Please let me know if you can find a source – I’ve drawn a blank whilst preparing for this piece!).

As some of you will know I recently heard Professor Martin Seligman speak in London, he’s the renowned founder of Positive Psychology. One of his many fascinating asides was on this theme, which he confirmed in principle. He went onto say that their analysis of the nomination campaigns had shown that the more positive campaigner had won both the Republican and the Democratic nominations. I know, some may be surprised: OK so Clinton sure, but Trump a positive campaign??

Interestingly he added that the more positive Presidential election (as opposed to nomination or primaries) campaign almost always wins. Apparently this is Clinton so… you heard it here first (not strictly true but it has a nice ring to it).

If we then take a step back and apply some positive psychology to the situation what do we find? That positive campaigns generally speaking generate more positive emotions in voters than do negative campaigns. And as we know from the research behind our Grace influencing model, creating positive emotions in people is the key to successfully influencing them. QED.

One last thought about the massive power of unconscious conditioning to shift our perceptions without our realising. Why have we adopted the word Brexit rather than Bremain? Sure the first scans better, but it’s more than that. It is also more aligned with our universal unconscious preference for negative concepts (quitting) over positive ones (persisting). And the very word favours one agenda over the other…

If you’re interested in deploying Grace to enhance the influencing power of your leaders, business development partners, sales professionals, or teams, then please get in touch , we’d love to help.

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