However we might oppose it, abortion is a sad feature of modern life. — Robert Casey
Think back to this last election: if you were a Clinton supporter, did you see your vote as one for Clinton or one against Trump? Or if you voted for Trump, was it a vote for him and his policies? Or one against Clinton and hers?
Although this may seem like a trivial difference, it can actually have some pretty impressive psychological influences.
In what’s known as the valence framing effect, when choosing between two options, we can either think of our preference in terms of opposition to the rejected alternative or in support of the preferred one. This dichotomy is most commonly seen in politics (with a two-party system); however, you can think of similar examples in other areas, like social issues.
For example, let’s consider abortion. If you believe that life begins at conception, you can either think of yourself as pro-life or as anti-abortion. In both cases, you believe all pregnancies should be carried to term, but in one case, you frame your attitude toward the issue in terms of support (pro-life), while in the other instance, you frame your attitude in terms of opposition (anti-abortion).
But can psychological differences really arise simply depending on how you think about your attitude?
To test this, researchers made up a cover story about a fictional (but seemingly realistic) election. Participants then learned about the two candidates running, where option A (Chris Bredesen) was always superior to option B (Rick Smith).
Now, half of the participant were guided to think of their preference in terms of opposition (i.e., boo Rick) while the other participants were guided to think of their choice in terms of support (.i.e., yay Chris).
Importantly, all participants received the exact same amount of information on both candidates, and when surveyed, participants in both conditions equally preferred Chris over Rick. Therefore, the only real difference between conditions was that one group thought of their attitude in terms of support (go, Chris!), whereas the other group thought of it in terms of opposition (go home, Rick!).
Then, later in the study, the researchers gave participants an attack message against the preferred candidate (i.e., Chris had maybe embezzled some money…). This allowed the researchers to see how firmly participants were committed to their preference for Chris.
And guess what: Those with an opposition (anti-Rick) mindset were more unmoved by the attack message. That is, thinking of your attitude toward a topic in terms of opposition (e.g., being anti-abortion) means you’re going to have a stronger attitude than if you think of it in terms of support (e.g., being pro-life).
Follow-up studies replicated this effect in an actual Virginia governor’s election with actual voters, additionally finding that when participants’ mindset were manipulated to be oppositional, they reported being more likely to vote.
The researchers contend that this opposition-framing effect occurs because of the prevalent finding that negative features are more important to us than positive features. For example, you’d probably go on a date with people of varying positive features; however, any person with a negative feature? Nuh-uh. No thank you.
Thus, when we come to think about our attitudes in terms of opposition (rather than support), focusing on those negative features make the overall preference stronger.
So when you think about reading today’s post, think of yourself as anti-to wasting your time not learning rather than being pro-spending your time enlightening yourself.
Psychophilosophy to Ponder: Did you know, that in this latest election, 71% of voters between the age of 18-29 who cast their vote for Clinton, cast it as a vote against Donald Trump? How do you think that influenced reactions to or predictions about the election–compared to prior races where more people cast their vote in favor of their party’s candidate? (e.g., in 2008, 68% of all Democrat voters cast their ballot as one in support of Obama, rather than in opposition to McCain).
*This is research by my adviser, Rich Petty!
Bizer, G. Y., & Petty, R. E. (2005). How we conceptualize our attitudes matters: The effects of valence framing on the resistance of political attitudes. Political Psychology, 26, 553-568.
Bizer, G. Y., Larsen, J. T., & Petty, R. E. (2011). Exploring the valence-framing effect: Negative framing enhances attitude strength. Political Psychology, 32, 59-80.
Very interesting thank you. So why is it that we are wired to feel “anti” as a stronger preference? Does this correlate at all to the positive & negative thinking that is the hype today?
That’s a great question. From an evolutionary standpoint, negative outcomes are more bad than positive outcomes are good. For example, if you go cliff diving (I know, crazy example), you can jump from a lot of different cliffs and have a good time. However, the moment you make one bad jump, you can seriously harm yourself. And although those cliff dives were super fun (the positive jumps), that one bad jump (the negative jump) carries more consequence than any of the other good jumps combined, i.e., the total negativity of that one bad jump is stronger than the total positivity of all the good jumps.
Thus, simply framing something as “opposed” keys us into the negative aspects of things, making that preference stronger. For example, Clinton voters couldn’t *stand* the idea of Trump being President; however, it didn’t need to be Hillary who beat him–so long as someone did.
With the positive and negative thinking of today, I don’t have any firm evidence to cite; however, I will say that we tend to give negative thoughts more weight. That is, it’s a lot “easier” to think negatively because those negative thoughts seem more consequential to us. In fact, people would probably say that negative thoughts will have a greater influence on you and your well being than positive thoughts would in the other direction. But that’s just my lay theorizing there.
I hope this helps answer your question!
Could, in part, be that we are conditioned in the womb; based on some of what you suggested in the above response?
Or, when you are an infant you garner more attention from parents/loved ones when you cry or through a tantrum?
I definitely think this “negative > positive” phenomenon is reinforced in our youth (e.g., parents being extra careful about their children); however, I think it exists on a much more biological level, too. That is, in order for our species to survive, we have to be very attuned to possible negative information (compared to positive) because the consequences for negative are so severe. As our brains have developed in this full cultural and social society we now live in, however, what constitutes these “negative” occurrences has also evolved (e.g., political preferences). So although I agree that experiences in our childhood increase the influence of this “negative > positive” effect, I think it’s also coded into our DNA in a sense–but I’d have to review the literature to see if there’s any evidence for this or whether it’s just my intuition.