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The Benefits of Scandalous Information

- February 28, 2011

People like to complain when the media focuses on “political scandals”:http://www.congressionalbadboys.com/. But might learning about a scandal actually have benefits?

In a recently published paper, “Beth Miller”:http://m.web.umkc.edu/millerel/ answers that question:

bq. The overwhelming conclusion from this analysis then is that “bad is stronger than good”: scandalous information reported by the news media facilitates recall of policy-related information.

Miller conducted an experiment in which subjects read 5 stories about a fictitious political candidate at 2-day intervals. One group read 5 stories about various policy issues, and the second read the same sequence, except that the fourth story was about the candidate’s previous extramarital affair. Unsuprisingly, subjects who read about the affair were more likely to remember the story — 47% did so, compared to 32% of those who read the fourth policy-related story.

Perhaps more surprisingly, subjects who read about the affair were, at the end of the experiment, _better able_ to recall what issues the candidate talked about and what positions the candidate took on these issues.

Miller concludes:

bq. 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. Subjects in this experiment did not discard the information they previously stored about the candidate after exposure to the scandal; instead, they appear to have thought more carefully about the candidate after hearing such negative information

The journal _Political Psychology_ has made Miller’s article available outside the paywall. Find it “here”:http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1467-9221.2010.00786.x/full. I thank Michael Streeter of Wiley-Blackwell for notifying me. Miller was also “interviewed”:http://www.onthemedia.org/transcripts/2011/02/11/06 about this article on NPR’s “On the Media.”