What politicians going positive teaches us about human motivation.

Remember back in 2008 when Obama said he disagreed with John McCain, but would always honor his military service?

Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images.


That feeling of niceness was great ... but it seems to be short-lived in political campaigns. The closer it gets to Election Day, the meaner the candidates seem to get, especially when it comes to each other.

We know that mean language weakens people's faith in the system, which isn't great.

Previous studies have shown that going negative can also be dangerous for the candidates themselves. When you start slinging mud at your opponents, you might get splashed yourself.

But what would happen if, instead of criticizing your opponent, you complimented them?

Professor Nicoletta Cavazza at the University of Modena and Reggio Emilia in Italy wanted to find out. To do this, the researchers asked 90 students to sit down and read fake political speeches. Some of the speeches had the typical mostly-negative political cadence you'd expect.

But half were tweaked to include a compliment toward the opposition. For example: "I believe that my competitor, who is an upright and smart person, will agree with me about the need to change this situation."

What did Cavazza find? In the end, the students rated the complimentary politician as being more trustworthy overall.

Unfortunately, we're not likely to see Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump getting all buddy-buddy.

Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.

But this research does show us something interesting about our brains.

Cavazza cautioned that the study did have limitations, such as the fact that the politicians were made up, which might limit how much we can apply this to real politics just yet. More research will need to be done to tease out more nuance in their findings as well.

But the study does teach us that we tend to trust people more if it looks like they're going against their own best interests and acting in someone else's best interest instead.

In the case of politics, this can look like being nice to your competition.

But in real life, it can also look like helping someone out randomly. Imagine going to a car mechanic for repair. Maybe there's been a weird thump when it turns on or a little jingle-jangle noise when you go over 40 miles an hour. You leave the car with them for a few hours and when you get back, they've not only fixed the problem but also changed your oil for free!

What a standup bloke. You'd trust him with your car next time, right?

One of the most interesting things about politics is how it lets us see human nature played out on a national stage.

Next time I watch politics, I'll keep an eye out for any flattery because it could be the trick to winning ... although this year, I may have to wait until after Nov. 8 for that.

Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash
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