TORONTO, Ontario — Name-calling and vitriol have become disturbingly commonplace in U.S. political discourse, but are people really listening or just enjoying the spectacle? Interesting new findings by a team at the University of Toronto reveal that many voters can’t help but tune out when politicians “take the low road.”
“The results are pretty clear,” says Matthew Feinberg, an associate professor of organizational behavior at the Rotman School of Management, in a university release. “Incivility may grab attention, but the ultimate result is less interest in what you have to say.”
Unfortunately, study authors explain, just how commonplace nastiness is in U.S. politics is part of the problem. Name-calling and a staunch “us versus them” mentality has become so widely adopted that many consider it normal politics at this point. Even before this project, Prof. Feinberg and fellow researcher Jeremy A. Frimer from the University of Winnipeg were already well aware, thanks to prior research on the rise in incivility, especially online.
Now, this project features an analysis of rude and demeaning language used in former U.S. president Donald Trump’s and current U.S. president Joe Biden’s social media posts. Crucially, both presidents gained fewer additional followers in the days after making particularly uncivil comments.
Regarding former President Trump, the team analyzed over 32,000 tweets issued from Trump’s Twitter account between mid-2015 and Jan. 8, 2021 — when the platform suspended him. During that span, Trump’s followers increased mightily from, three million to about 89 million. Interestingly, though, his biggest gains came in the days following tweets that were actually more civil; roughly 43,000 new followers versus only 16,000 new followers after a rude comment.
A machine-learning program capable of detecting toxic speech and phrases helped researchers identify and classify the most uncivil tweets posted by both presidents.
Even the current president’s behavior turns people off
The team analyzed over 7,000 tweets posted by Joe Biden between 2012 and June 2021. His followers increased from five million to 32 million during that time. He gained many more new followers (an average of 45,000) when his tweets were very civil in comparison to when his Twitter account used more uncivil language (11,000 new followers).
Prof. Feinberg hypothesizes the steeper drop in new followers for Biden may be the result of people generally expecting more civil behavior from him than Trump. However, even Trump’s incivility cost him over 6.3 million followers.
Study authors also conducted another two experiments, encompassing a total of roughly 2,000 participants. Those studies confirmed the finding that political incivility eventually leads to longer-term disinterest. This held true even when a participant identified with the same political party as the politician being rude — a finding Prof. Feinberg calls “surprising.”
Moreover, the third experiment revealed that moral disapproval of what a politician says appears to hold a stronger influence on a person’s ongoing interest than whether the politician’s words were attention-grabbing in the first place. In light of these findings, researchers say they can’t help but wonder why politicians insist on engaging in nasty, rude behavior towards their rivals. They speculate it may be to inflict greater damage on their opponents’ reputations, or perhaps even to repulse voters so much that they don’t even bother going to the polls.
Or, Prof. Feinberg concludes, “maybe it’s just that they’re wrong.”
The study is published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science.