Barely a day goes by without some political scandal or other splashed across the papers. Critics argue this obsession with tittle-tattle distracts the electorate from more important policy issues. ‘…a fiercely independent media is the guarantor of democracy,’ Will Hutton wrote in 2000, before warning that the British media’s obsession with scandal ‘paradoxically, may be beginning to endanger it [democracy]’.
A new study by Beth Miller at the University of Missouri-Kansas City challenges the assumption that scandal is a distraction. Every two days, she presented 413 undergrads with a newspaper article containing information about a policy position held by a mayoral candidate. Then, 1 to 14 days later, she tested the students’ memory for the candidate’s policies. The important twist was that for half the participants, the fourth of five newspaper articles, rather than being about a policy, was about a scandal involving the candidate – in particular, his confession to an extra-marital affair.
The assumption of many would be that this story would distract participants from the drier, but arguably more important, detail of the politician’s policies. Similarly, in psychological terms, it might be argued that the scandalous information would displace the earlier memory traces associated with policies, especially since negative information is known to be particularly memorable and attention-grabbing.
An alternative prediction, however, is that the salience of the scandal would actually benefit all other memories associated with the politician. This is consistent with the idea that memory is an ‘associative network’ made up of interconnected nodes. By this account, activation of one node – the one representing scandal – will spill over and raise the activation in all related nodes, thus benefiting participants’ memory for the mayoral candidate’s policies.
Miller found that more policy-related information was recalled by participants who read about the scandal, consistent with the associative-memory account. Moreover, compared with participants in the scandal condition who forgot about it (the scandal), those who remembered it were also more likely to remember policy information – reinforcing the idea that the scandal memory had benefited policy memories. As you might expect, although the scandal benefited participants’ memory for policies, it also negatively affected the participants’ evaluation of the candidate.
‘While these results do not suggest that candidates can engage in scandalous activities without consequence, they do suggest that the depiction of the public as blind to anything but scandalous information seems to be an exaggeration,’ Miller said. ‘The results … suggest that exposure to scandalous information … may have beneficial side-effects not previously explored.’
Miller, B. (2010). The Effects of Scandalous Information on Recall of Policy-Related Information. Political Psychology, 31 (6), 887-914 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9221.2010.00786.x