In today's heated political climate, the increasingly coarse, rude, and disrespectful ways in which politicians interact have become a growing concern. Yet, while name-calling, personal insults, or ad hominem attacks are commonly disliked by voters, writing them off as ineffective communication strategies seems premature. Perhaps these rhetorical strategies are persuasive…at least to some people. In our recent study, we explored the unexpected ways in which this kind of disrespectful rhetoric, often referred to as "political incivility," can sway people's opinions.

Is Incivility Persuasive?

We surveyed over three thousand adults from Switzerland and the U.S. about their views on a controversial political issue. Everyone read a message designed to sway their views on the issue. In each country, some people received a message with a civil tone ("I can respect that some people may think differently"). Others received a message with a much less civil tone ("Frankly, every other opinion is bullshit"). After receiving the messages, we asked everyone to indicate their stance on the issue again, allowing us to measure whether they were persuaded or not. 

Given the widespread public distaste for rudeness in politics, we expected the uncivil messages to be the least persuasive. Surprisingly, this was not the case. We didn't find any evidence that the uncivil messages were less persuasive than the civil ones. Then again, we also didn't find evidence that the uncivil messages were more persuasive either.

We think these results could mean that there's a tension inherent to uncivil rhetoric. On the one hand, people think it's inappropriate. On the other hand, incivility shocks, attracts attention, and is sometimes even perceived as entertaining. As a result, people might find themselves more engaged with and likely to recall uncivil political messaging. On the balance, then, the harms and benefits of incivility may cancel each other out, resulting in as much persuasion as a civil message.

Is Incivility a Matter of Taste?

It could be that incivility is "a matter of taste," and there are some people who will be especially swayed by it. Based on this intuition, we examined whether voters with populist leanings might be more drawn to this style of communication, in line with the populist inclination to challenge traditional political etiquette. Indeed, we found that populist supporters in the U.S. were more receptive to incivility. This suggests a link between the populist mindset and a preference for more rough-and-tumble communication styles.

However, this was not the case in Switzerland, where populist supporters were not particularly swayed by incivility. The contrasting responses can be linked to the differing political and cultural contexts of the two countries.

In the U.S., a sharp political divide and strong anti-establishment sentiment might have heightened the appeal of uncivil discourse among populists. In contrast, Switzerland's consensus-based political culture and the prevalence of the populist Swiss People's Party likely create a less conducive environment for uncivil rhetoric, reflecting the nation's general aversion to divisive politics.

Beyond political ideology, we also found that other character traits mattered. We explored the possibility that uncivil rhetoric might resonate more among people with the "aggressive" personality traits often ascribed to populist supporters.

One set of personality traits we focused on was the so-called "Dark Triad": Machiavellianism, narcissism, and psychopathy. These traits, which involve manipulation, self-centeredness, and a lack of empathy, may predispose individuals to favor the blunt and aggressive nature of uncivil communication in political interactions. Sure enough, in both Switzerland and the U.S., individuals with "darker" personalities—especially those high in psychopathy—tended to be more persuaded by uncivil messages.

Conclusion

Overall, our research highlights the complex and multifaceted influence of political incivility on public opinion. While conventional wisdom might suggest that the coarseness and disrespect in politics would necessarily repel voters, these tactics do not uniformly decrease message persuasiveness.

These findings, backed by evidence from both Switzerland and the U.S., open up some intriguing possibilities for campaign strategies. They imply that politicians might opt to strategically use incivility to capture voters' attention, while simultaneously safeguarding the persuasiveness of their messages. More than that, we found that incivility can persuade more than civility when targeting specific segments of the electorate.

Indeed, for populist voters (in the U.S.) and those with a "darker" personality profile, incivility isn't just tolerable; it's compelling.


For Further Reading

Vargiu, C., Nai, A., & Valli, C. (2024). Uncivil yet persuasive? Testing the persuasiveness of political incivility and the moderating role of populist attitudes and personality traits. Political Psychology. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1111/pops.12969


Chiara Vargiu is a PhD candidate at the University of Lausanne where she studies perceptions and evaluations of elite incivility.

Alessandro Nai is Associate Professor of Political Communication at the University of Amsterdam. His work deals with the dark side of politics.

Chiara Valli is a PhD student at the University of Bern with a focus on the psychological underpinnings of political information processing.