Regular readers of this blog well know that I have been advocating that there are some ways of responding to interpersonal situations that are more mature than others. For example, in one post I describe four levels of maturity for responding to criticism. In another, I describe five levels of maturity for providing negative criticism. In those posts, I contend that when dealing with criticism the use of insults and threats tend to lower your level of maturity. Moreover, people who are less mature tend to be less liked and respected, and in the long run, less effective in achieving their goals. Shortly after I began to write these posts, I began to hear from some people who wondered if my levels of maturity don’t apply in the realm of politics. One reflection of this sentiment came from E. Mark Stern who wrote: My wife is in local politics. And though she decided to run for office knowing that there would be political opponents, she had not bargained for the name calling and personal attacks on her being….One may think of such bullying as much in the American tradition – a to be expected risk that elected officials need to grin and bear. But when attacks get personal, and one’s being is fair target, then it gets intolerable and the people one serves suffer for it. After reading these types of comments, I began to think of the many attack ads that we all are exposed to during political campaigns. And then I thought about what I had heard from several TV political analysts over the year–attack ads are used because they work. There is obviously a great deal of money to be made from producing and running these ads for the very same people who hire TV political analysts, so I decided to look deeper into this claim.
How Effective Are Attack Ads?
According to an August 8, 2013 article in Scientific American: “A comprehensive literature analysis published in 2007 in the Journal of Politics examined the effects of political ads. The authors reported that negative ads tended to be more memorable than positive ones but that they did not affect voter choice. People were no less likely to turn out to the polls or to decide against voting for a candidate who was attacked in an ad.” The Scientific American article goes on to say that the reviewed studies all had some drawbacks and therefore evidence on the effectiveness of negative political ads is best viewed as inconclusive. After looking at the scientific evidence for the insulting actions that politicians regularly engage in, I wrote two posts that tried to throw some light on this topic–one back on October 13, 2012 about two presidential debates, and a more recent one on January 13, 2014 about New Jersey’s Governor Chris Christie’s use of insults. Since I wrote those posts, a couple of new particularly vivid examples came to my attention. The first again involves Governor Christie; the other involves US Congressman Michael Grimm.
The Governor Christie Example
This example actually occurred many years ago, but it is helpful in giving us some sense of the long term consequences of using attack ads. I refer to it as a new example because I first learned about it on the Feb. 6, 2014, edition of MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow Show. According to Rachel’s report, on Nov. 17, 1996, Chris Cristie, who had recently been elected to be a Morris County Freeholder, made a public apology and retraction to two people who ran against him in the Republican primaries. He had claimed in attack ads that they were under investigation for their part in some corruption scandal. Here is his apology: Dear Cissy and Ed, I am writing to express my sincere apology to both of you and your families concerning two political advertisements which ran on my behalf during the Freeholders Primary Election Campaign in May and June, 1994. The commercials ran over 400 times on cable TV. He goes on to state that “the ads were not appropriate. They should not have been part of my campaign when I ran against you. I fully intend, in any future campaigns in which I am involved, to be more sensitive to the impact of such tactics. I hope you will accept this heartfelt apology in which it is made.”
Rachel reported that the “spirit in which that apology was made is that it was legally required of Chris Christie after he was sued over those ads.” Although the ads were declared false after the election was over, Rachel expressed her belief that they worked for Christie who won that race. I’m not really sure I agree with Rachel that the ads worked. We really don’t know for a fact that Christie wouldn’t have won the election anyway. In addition to the apology, as part of settling the law suit, Christie had to pay money to the people that he ran the ads against. After the voters heard what he had done, they failed to reelect him when he ran again for the same seat. Moreover, he tried to get elected during that same period to another office, and again he lost. Christie was only able to get back into politics after that incident after raising a great deal of money for George W. Bush during Bush’s run for president, who then rewarded Christie by naming him top federal prosecutor of NJ even though he was never a prosecutor before at any level. The years went on, and finally Christie again ran for office–this time for Governor of New Jersey–and won.
The Rep. Michael Grimm Example
Last week, Rep. Grimm was being interviewed by Michael Scotto, a NY1 reporter, about President Obama’s State of The Union speech. When Scotto tried to turn the conversation to the subject of a two-year federal investigation into allegations of a campaign finance violations investigation, Grimm told him, “I’m not speaking about anything that’s off topic. This is only about the President,” and then he walked away. But as Scotto was talking to viewers back in New York, the Congressman stormed back into the shot and threatened and insulted him. “Let me be clear to you, you ever do that to me again I’ll throw you off this f—–g balcony,” Grimm said. “Why, why, I just wanted to ask you …?” Scotto responded. “If you ever do that to me again …,” the Representative shot back. “It’s a valid question,” Scotto said in his defense, but Grimm replied: “No, no, you’re not man enough, you’re not man enough. I’ll break you in half. Like a boy,” according to the NY1 transcript. The next day, Grimm issued a public apology: “I was wrong. I shouldn’t have allowed my emotions to get the better of me and lose my cool. I have apologized to Michael Scotto, which he graciously accepted, and will be scheduling a lunch soon. In the weeks and months ahead I’ll be working hard for my constituents on issues like flood insurance that is so desperately needed in my district post-Sandy.”
I began this post by contending that: 1. there are some ways of responding to interpersonal situations that are more mature than others 2. when dealing with criticism the use of insults and threats tend to lower your level of maturity 3. people who are less mature tend to be less liked and respected, and in the long run, less effective in achieving their goals. If I am correct, why then do so many politicians regularly display behaviors that I characterize as immature?
One reason that we looked at was that many people have a financial interest in selling the idea that smear tactics do work. In actuality, the best scientific evidence currently available suggests that this claim is false. Since this evidence is not perfect, the best that we can say for the claim is that there is no convincing evidence to support it despite years of research that has focused on addressing this issue.
After discussing this research, I then presented two examples of politicians using immature ways to criticize others. Chris Christie used a smear campaign against his opponents in a Republican primary. Although he won the election, he had to issue a public apology, pay a financial settlement and he became unelectable for several years afterwards. Rep. Grimm desired to not have to publicize the fact that there has been an investigation into allegations regarding his campaign. When he criticized a reporter for bringing the topic up in front of a TV camera, he included in his criticism, threats and insults. Like Christie, he too had to issue a public apology. Moreover, because of his immature actions, the press publicized the story to a far greater audience leading to far more people learning about the investigation.
The levels of maturity for responding or providing negative criticism are most relevant to your interpersonal relationships. The relationship between politicians and their voters is best viewed as an intergroup relationship, rather than an interpersonal one. This intergroup relationship involves the group of people who might potentially vote for him, the group of people who have a vested interest in getting the politician elected, and the groups of people who are working to get someone else elected.
Although I contend that the levels of maturity are relevant in intergroup relationships, other issues often become more important. When people decide on who to vote for, they consider many issues, not just whether or not the candidate insults anyone. If some voters recognize that Governor Christie insults others a bit more than other candidates, they may feel that his stand on keeping taxes low is a far more important issue for them. Politicians, moreover, are not seeking to develop a sound interpersonal relationship with you. Instead, they are seeking your vote. They know very well that not everyone is going to vote for them. If they anger 49 percent of voters, but 51 percent end up voting for them, they achieved their goal, at least in the short run. When it comes to interpersonal relationships, if you act in a manner that leads to 49 percent of the people you personally know not liking you, those who don’t like you can begin to say things behind your back to people who actually personally interact with you. Some of what they say can be untrue and very unfair. You may find that when people that you like have parties, you no longer get invited. When you used to be invited to go bowling, now someone else is getting invited instead. These types of consequences have far more direct effects on your personal life than anything that is likely to happen as a result of a typical election. And so, for these reasons, I hope that you don’t come to believe that because many politicians act in insulting ways throughout their careers that this means that the notion of maturity is irrelevant to your own interpersonal relationships.
Some people will enjoy reading this blog by beginning with the first post and then moving forward to the next more recent one; then to the next one; and so on. This permits readers to catch up on some ideas that were presented earlier and to move through all of the ideas in a systematic fashion to develop their emotional intelligence. To begin at the very first post you can click HERE.