Judicious Respect for Your Political Opponent

Niels Van Quaquebeke smiling

How disrespectful communication in political debate impacts election outcomes

Right now in the US, Donald Trump is primarily attempting to demonstrate his decisiveness and strong will by directly attacking his political opponents. Election campaigns in Germany are increasingly taking on the characteristics of American ones, and there are many political players here who are known for their disrespectfulness in debates. Yet, Angela Merkel remains respectful when dealing with her opponents – even during frontal attacks. Is this her secret to success?
A current study has examined how disrespectful communication in political debates impacts election outcomes. The participants in the study, which is being published in Political Psychology, were significantly less willing to give their vote to a candidate who was disrespectful during debates, regardless of whether they were perceived more competent and decisive.

Carried out at Kühne Logistics University (KLU), the University of Hamburg, and the University of Trento, the study analyzed the 2013 parliamentary election in Germany. Peer Steinbrück challenged Merkel – also known as “Teflon Merkel” because she smiles and remains calm in the face of personal attacks. At the other end of the spectrum, he is known for calling other political players “clowns” or “crybabies” and giving them the finger.

In the sense of image management, Merkel hoped that her respectful treatment would serve in the stead of the social warmth that many people perceive her as lacking. Steinbrück, on the other hand, wanted to appear feisty and strong-willed. The voters saw something else: they perceived Merkel as socially inclusive and Steinbrück as awkward and clumsy.

However, Merkel was also universally seen as being boring and passive, while her opponent was considered quick-witted and competent. The researchers wanted to analyze this apparent contradiction. They assumed that disrespectfulness in political discourse has an impact on two different dimensions of social perception. One dimension is called “communion,” the lack of human warmth, and the other is “agency,” a signal of self-confidence and dominance.

The research project consists of three studies that aim to offer a better explanation of election results. “The significance of disrespectfulness in political discourse on election results not only varies with the dimension of attribution, but also with the moral self-image of the voters,” said Dr. Niels Van Quaquebeke, Professor of Leadership and Organizational Behavior at KLU.

“Two dimensions are important for election outcomes: human warmth – whether or not the candidate is perceived as friendly and group-oriented – and agency – the extent to which the candidate is perceived as competent and ready to tackle the job at hand,” Van Quaquebeke explained. “In contrast to political advice to tear apart political opponents by whatever means, disrespectfulness in political debates does not necessarily lead to the attribution of agency to a candidate, but it always leads to a lower human warmth rating.”

How can politicians make use of these results? “Our data show that, for example, showing disrespect during a debate can be likened to shooting yourself in the leg,” said Van Quaquebeke. “In general, candidates should avoid this type of communication – contrary to what some political advisors recommend to politicians preparing for TV debates. It may be instrumental for short term strategies such as receiving people’s attention – see Trump -, but our data suggest that it is not a good strategy to ultimately get elected.”

In 2013, Merkel won the election and became the chancellor. In 2015, she was Time magazine’s Person of the Year. Who would expect the same of Mr. Trump?

The study by Prof. Niels Van Quaquebeke (Kühne Logistics University, Hamburg), Christina Mölders (University of Hamburg), and Maria Paola Paladino (University of Trento) is in print in Political Psychology, doi: 10.1111/pops.12311,

see: onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/pops.12311/abstract