Results of a new study demonstrate that name-calling in politics frequently has the opposite of its intended effect, with respondents evaluating the assailant negatively after witnessing the disparaging remark. Furthermore, the investigation revealed an unexpected similarity in how Republicans and Democrats responded to name-calling by candidates, with both sides rebuking Democrats for using it.
The research has been published in Journal of Elections, Public Opinion and Parties.
One can find evidence of name-calling in politics throughout American history. For example, Thomas Jefferson described president John Adams as “A blind, bald, crippled, toothless man who is a hideous hermaphrodite character with neither the force and fitness of a man nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.” Modern political candidates may not be as articulate with their insults, but the practice enthusiastically continues; despite this, there is limited research on its impact.
To address this deficiency, Aaron Dusso and Sydnee Perkins conducted an online survey of 2,016 Americans to determine the effect of name-calling on how people evaluated a group of fictional candidates after reading a news report about an election rally.
These fictional stories were embedded at different points in a longer survey. For example, the stories included a political candidate calling their opponent either “heartless” or “crooked.” The surveys varied “(1) using a pejorative or not, (2) the gender of the attacker, (3) the gender of the victim, and in the second story the (4) partisanship of the two candidates.” After reading their randomly assigned stories, participants rated the candidate on a 1-100 scale.
Data analysis found that participants tended to be critical of the attackers, while the targets of the name-calling did not experience any damage to their reputations. The research also uncovered a noteworthy discrepancy in how Republicans and Democrats assess out-party attackers. Democratic participants were consistently disapproving of candidates who employed name-calling, regardless of their political party, while Republicans were only disapproving of Democrats using offensive language but not of their own partisans using the same approach.
Name-calling in politics may be counterproductive since voters tend to blame the attacker rather than the target for utilizing it. This was especially true when Democrats used name-calling. Both Democrats and Republicans tend to rate Democratic candidates lower when they use name-calling than when they do not. Furthermore, being a victim of name-calling does not have any negative repercussions, and gender does not affect the backlash a person may face for using name-calling.
The results are in line with a previous study, which found that Donald Trump’s nickname for his rival Joe Biden (“Sleepy Joe”) had little impact.
This new investigation has substantial implications for examining incivility in politics. It reveals an unmistakable reaction against the people responsible for incivility and practically no proof that assaults “succeed.” Dusso and Perkins conclude, “The results presented here also have implications for research on incivility and negativity in politics.”
“This is particularly the case because we show a clear backlash against the perpetrators of incivility with little evidence that the attacks ‘work’ in any meaningful way to reduce the evaluations of the victim. This research adds another important result that individuals typically do not reward incivility.”
The study, “Crooked Hillary and Sleepy Joe: name-calling’s backfire effect on candidate evaluations”, was authored by Aaron Dusso and Sydnee Perkins.