During times of intense political disagreement, politicians sometimes abandon civility and resort to disrespectful behavior. But how does this impact public opinion? According to a study published in Social Psychological and Personality Science, incivility doesn’t attract public interest as previously thought. Instead, it tends to elicit negative reactions from the general public.
Incivility refers to the use of rude or disrespectful language, such as name-calling, mockery, and vulgarity. Some believe that employing incivility in politics can capture the public’s attention, leading to advantages like a larger audience and greater influence. However, this study challenges the notion that incivility is an effective political strategy. It explores the possibility that incivility may actually result in moral disapproval and decreased interest from the public.
The study, conducted by Matthew Feinberg and Jeremy A. Frimer, consisted of multiple research methods, including longitudinal and experimental approaches. For example, in studies 1a and 1b, the researchers analyzed the Twitter feeds of Donald Trump and Joe Biden over time. They examined the relationship between incivility in their tweets and the number of new followers gained the following day.
In study 2, the researchers recruited 1,479 participants with diverse political affiliations from Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. The participants read civil or uncivil statements from politicians and rated their interest in hearing more from each politician.
Study 3 involved 604 participants recruited through the same platform, and they read civil or uncivil speeches from fictional Democratic or Republican politicians. The participants rated their interest in hearing more, indicated moral approval or disapproval, and assessed the speech’s level of attention-grabbing.
The results of these studies provided evidence that incivility leads to decreased interest in hearing more from a politician, contrary to previous beliefs. Studies 1a and 1b showed a significant drop in the rate of gaining new followers for politicians after engaging in incivility on Twitter.
Study 2 revealed that participants, regardless of their political affiliation, expressed significantly less interest in hearing more from politicians who made uncivil statements.
Study 3 expanded on these findings, demonstrating that participants showed greater interest in civil political discourse. Additionally, there were party differences, as Republican participants were more tolerant of incivility from fictional Republican politicians compared to how Democrats responded to uncivil statements from Democratic politicians. Moral disapproval of incivility played a role in reducing interest.
Overall, these results suggest that incivility is an ineffective political strategy because the public tends to react negatively to it.
Although this study sheds light on the impact of incivility on the public, there are limitations to consider. For example, the longitudinal studies assumed that the public’s interest was influenced by the tweets that followed, but it’s possible that people viewed the tweets before or after expressing their interest. Additionally, this study focused on American participants and the American political system. Future research should investigate how these findings apply more broadly.
In conclusion, the researchers suggest that politicians should behave more civilly if they want to have influence. However, it’s worth noting that there might be other functions of incivility that offset the loss of interest. “Politicians might willingly impair interest if their uncivil rhetoric poses even more damage to political opponents’ reputations. In addition, if incivility depresses interest in politics in general, incumbents worried the electorate is turning on them might benefit by using incivility to minimize voter turnout,” the researchers wrote.
“Relatedly, it is unclear whether incivility minimizes interest in the politician acting uncivilly, or in that politician’s party in general. Research on the radical flank effect (Simpson et al., 2022), wherein radical groups in social movement lead observers to support more moderate groups of that same movement and suggests uncivil politicians could make civil politicians in their party look better via contrast effects. Thus, even if uncivil politicians decrease the public’s interest in them, they may be building interest in their party members. Future research should explore these important questions relating to how incivility influences interest.”
The study, “Incivility Diminishes Interest in What Politicians Have to Say“, was authored by Matthew Feinberg and Jeremy A. Frimer.