How Human Evolution Shapes our Response to Politics

The article, “Cognitive Biases and the Strength of Political Arguments” by Kevin Arceneaux, appears in the April 2012 issue of the American Journal of Political Science. Here, Professor Arceneaux summarizes its contents:

What makes some political arguments more persuasive than others? The question has bedeviled politicians and their handlers for millennia. Over the past 60 years, social scientists have grappled with the psychology of persuasion. While we have learned much about how people process persuasive communication, we still understand little about what makes some arguments stronger than others.

In my article “Cognitive Biases and the Strength of Political Arguments”, I contend that people find arguments that key into deeply rooted predispositions more persuasive than those that do not. Many human predispositions are the product of evolution, which endowed the mind with default preferences that helped our ancestors survive and reproduce.

To test this idea, I used a well-known predisposition — the tendency for people to loathe losses more than they enjoy gains. In a series of experiments, I presented people with arguments that either focused on avoiding losses or realizing gains. The results demonstrate that the loss-framed argument beat out the gain-framed argument, irrespective of the position with which it was paired. The results also show that anxiety plays a crucial role in activating loss aversion. Loss-framed appeals were especially effective among those primed to feel anxious. Consequently, loss-framed arguments are not guaranteed to win the day, but when conditions are ripe — such as when people are anxious about the economy — they can be potent. More broadly, this research establishes how human evolution can shape our response to politics.

About the Author: Kevin Arceneaux is a Professor of Political Science at Temple University and is an Institute of Public Affairs Faculty Affiliate.

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The American Journal of Political Science (AJPS) is the flagship journal of the Midwest Political Science Association and is published by Wiley.

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