Behaviour Change

PROPAGANDA FOR CHANGE is a project created by the students of Behaviour Change (ps359) and Professor Thomas Hills @thomhills at the Psychology Department of the University of Warwick. This work was supported by funding from Warwick's Institute for Advanced Teaching and Learning.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Why Politicians Keep Repeating Their Catch-Phrases...All the Time

 Politicians are not always so good at answering questions. It is something that voters endlessly complain about, and politicians of a given party accuse their opposition of doing, in spite of being guilty of it themselves. They have an inherent tendency to dodge questions very effectively. And one thing we see a lot is the repetition of catch-phrases, whether they are related to the question posed, or not.
Whether you were interested in the outcome of the 2015 General Elections or not, you will probably have heard the sentence “We have a long-term economic plan that’s working”, spoken by the Prime Minister and his party. Why did this sentence stand out? Purely and simply because it was constantly repeated. The Prime Minister and his fellow Members of Parliament would try and slide this phrase into most of the answers they gave to questions raised by the public and the media. 
After watching many television debates, we had heard this catch-phrase more times than we could count, and most Conservative voters were starting to find it fairly painful to watch their leader use his favourite debate. It seemed as though their party’s leader was getting complacent, perhaps because the leader of the opposition was struggling to build a reputation following his recent attempt at eating a bacon sandwich.

Labour supporters probably couldn’t believe their luck—after all, with a country crying out for more relatable politicians and complaining of feeling disengaged with politics, why would any prospective leader try to put the voter off by repeating the same sentence over and over again like a broken record?
The truth is, this endless repetition of “We have a long-term economic plan” was very deliberate. Having been hired by the Conservative party to run their election campaign, Lynton Crosby, an election strategist for centre-right parties, and Jim Messina, Barack Obama’s former aide, instructed all members of the party to repeat this sentence, in order to send out a clear message about past economic successes and the ability to maintain these successes in future (Watt, 2015). And here was what was key: regardless of how embarrassing it might be, they would have to repeat this simple message as much as possible. Of course, this would never be enough to convince someone from the opposition to change sides. On the contrary, it most probably led them to believe that the Conservatives were on a path to destruction. The targets were swing voters, whose opinions were likely to be changed more easily through the use of simple, consistent messages. The result? A surprising Conservative majority, in spite of neck-and-neck opinion polls and mixed television debate ratings. 

Why did this work?

A well-known effect called the Mere Exposure Effect, first discovered by Zajonc (1968) states that people develop attitudes that favour things that they have been exposed to more, without having had any interaction with those things. This effect has been reproduced with exposure to people, visual stimuli and noises. Research has also found this same effect when exposing participants to political statements. The difference with these is that people tend to feel very strongly about certain issues, so one would imagine it might be harder to change people's attitude to these issues by doing something as simple as exposing them to a particular argument more. In an experiment by Miller (1976), students’ attitudes towards reducing foreign aid were measured after varying degrees of exposure to posters condoning the reduction of foreign aid in order to balance the government’s spending. 


The results suggested that exposing participants to a political, persuasive message was enough to increase positive attitudes towards it. The effects do show that over-exposing participants to a message somewhat dampened the positive effect on their attitudes, but was still better than no exposure at all. This could possibly explain how the constant message repetition that the Conservatives stuck to might have been part of the reason for the vote-swing favouring them. Perhaps they should have found a middle-ground when it came to repeating, and therefore exposing their catch-phrase to the general public, for optimal effects, but it seems that there is reason to believe that attitudes towards their "long-term economic plan" were improved through the repetition of this message.

Miller, R.L. (1976). Mere exposure, psychological reactance, and attitudinal change. Public Opinion Quarterly, 40, 229-243.

Watt, N. (2015). Tory strategists enforce rigid discipline as election approaches. The Guardian.  Retrieved from:

Zajonc, R.B, (1968). The attitudinal effects of mere exposure. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology Monograph Supplement, 9, 1-27

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