Skip to content
Search

Latest Stories

Top Stories

How harnessing the power of bad helped Trump win the debate

Donald Trump on stage at the debate

Donald Trump's emphasis on the power of negative information gave him an advantage at Thursday's debate.

Kyle Mazza/Anadolu via Getty Images

Assari is an associate professor of public health and Internal Medicine at Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science. He is a member of the Scholars Strategy Network.

On Thursday, we witnessed a debate between President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump. What captured most of the audience's attention were Biden's occasional stumbles and Trump's numerous statements inaccuracies. Biden appeared humble and policy-focused, while Trump was loud, assertive and well-spoken.

However, another significant aspect was Trump's rhetoric, which was often filled with threats, fear and loss, especially on topics like immigration and crime. In contrast, Biden's points were primarily centered around policies and statistics aimed at benefiting Americans overall, with a particular focus on the vulnerable.


Despite Biden's stumbles and Trump's lower factual accuracy, Trump's emphasis on the power of negative information gave him an advantage. His strategy tapped into the human mind's bias towards negative information.

When comparing the influence of good and bad, there is an undeniable truth: Bad is stronger than good. This phenomenon, deeply rooted in the human psyche, has significant implications in various domains, including politics. Understanding this principle helps explain why Trump had the upper hand in the debate.

A basic and powerful fact about the human mind is its preferential attention devoted to threats. Our memories are also inherently biased towards negative experiences. This is not just a superficial observation; it's a well-documented phenomenon in social psychology and economics literature. It is also rooted in human evolution and the wiring of our brain. Roy F. Baumeister and his colleagues famously highlighted this in their paper, "Bad Is Stronger than Good," which has been cited over 10,000 times by other scientists.

Sign up for The Fulcrum newsletter

Baumeister's review paper, published in 2001, showed us that negative events have a more significant impact on our emotions, thoughts and behaviors than positive ones.

For instance, people react more strongly to threats and failures than to opportunities and successes. This is evident in experiments where negative experiences consistently overshadow positive ones in terms of emotional impact.

In various domains, from romance to everyday interactions, negative experiences tend to have a more profound and lasting effect than positive ones. This is because the human brain is wired to prioritize and remember negative stimuli as a survival mechanism.

Baumeister's review provided us with many real-world examples that illustrate why negative information is more compelling.

Journalists know that stories about negative news often receive more attention and are more widely shared than positive ones. This is because we are naturally drawn to bad news, which we perceive as more urgent and important. On social media, posts that evoke anger, fear, or outrage tend to go viral more quickly than those that promote happiness or positivity. This is a direct consequence of the mind's bias towards bad information.

Economists have also shown us asymmetry between our sensitivity to loss and reward/gain. The pain of losing $10 may be more than the reward from winning $20. Neuroscientists, meanwhile, have shown how more primitive parts of our brain are responsible for our loss aversion.

It's essential for the audience to be aware of the power of Trump’s messaging about threats and negativity. Such messaging continues to give him an edge, regardless of the actual probabilities of these fears. This continuous advantage is not just a matter of political tactics but is deeply rooted in the psychological makeup of the audience.

At the same time, Biden did not sufficiently focus on the threats posed to our democracy by a second Trump term and MAGA Republicans. This was a missed opportunity during the debate. By highlighting the potential risks of another Jan. 6 and the negative consequences associated with a second Trump administration, Biden could have better leveraged the power of bad, which could persuade undecided voters who are wary of the MAGA agenda.

As we reflect on the impact of the debate, Americans should be mindful that some of Trump's advantage in Thursday's debate was not solely due to Biden's occasional stumbles but also to Trump's excellence in harnessing the "power of bad." This proficiency could influence election results. Understanding these psychological principles can help us mitigate the unparalleled influence of such tactics.

Read More

Secret Service agents covering Trump

Secret service agents cover former President Donald Trump after he was wounded in an assassination attempt July 13.

Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Violence lives in all of us

Molineaux is the lead catalyst for American Future, a research project that discovers what Americans prefer for their personal future lives. The research informs community planners with grassroots community preferences. Previously, Molineaux was the president/CEO of The Bridge Alliance.

Whenever we or our loved ones are harmed, it is our human tendency to seek vengeance. Violence begets violence. Violent words lead to violent actions, as we’ve witnessed in the assassination attempt on former President Donald Trump.

The violence of the gunman is his alone.

Our response to violence is about us.

Keep ReadingShow less
Sen. Tammy Duckworth and Rep. Don Bacon

Sen. Tammy Duckworth and Rep. Don Bacon won the "Life in Congress" award from the Congressional Management Foundation.

The best bosses in an unusual work environment: Capitol Hill

Fitch is the president and CEO of the Congressional Management Foundation and a former congressional staffer.

Our nation’s capital is known for many things — but good management practices are not among them. Stories regularly surface of bizarre tales of harassment and abuse by members of Congress. An Instagram feed a few years ago unearthed dozens of stories by staff outing less-than-desirable managers and members for their bad practices. But what about the good leaders and good managers?

Like any profession, Congress actually has quite a few exemplary office leaders. And the beneficiaries of these role models are not just their staff — it’s also their constituents. When a congressional office can retain great talent, sometimes over decades, the quality of the final legislative product or constituent service rises immensely.

Keep ReadingShow less
Rep. Gus Bilirakis and Rep. Ayanna Pressley

Rep. Gus Bilirakis and Rep. Ayanna Pressley won the Congressional Management Foundation's Democracy Award for Constituent Accountability and Accessibility.

Official portraits

Some leaders don’t want to be held accountable. These two expect it.

Fitch is president and CEO of the Congressional Management Foundation and a former congressional staffer.

There is probably no more important concept in the compact between elected officials and those who elect them than accountability. One of the founding principles of American democracy is that members of Congress are ultimately accountable to their constituents, both politically and morally. Most members of Congress get this, but how they demonstrate and implement that concept varies. The two winners of the Congressional Management Foundation’s Democracy Award for Constituent Accountability and Accessibility clearly understand and excel at this concept.

Keep ReadingShow less
Woman speaking at a microphone

Rep. Lucy McBath is the first lawmaker from Georgia to win a Democracy Awarrd.

Michael Brochstein/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Surprise: Some great public servants are actually members of Congress

Fitch is the president and CEO of the Congressional Management Foundation and a former congressional staffer.

TheCongressional Management Foundation today announced the winners of the seventh annual Democracy Awards, CMF’s program recognizing non-legislative achievement and performance in congressional offices and by members of Congress. Two members of Congress, one Democrat and one Republican, are recognized in four categories related to their work in Congress.

Americans usually only hear about Congress when something goes wrong. The Democracy Awards shines a light on Congress when it does something right. These members of Congress and their staff deserve recognition for their work to improve accountability in government, modernize their work environments and serve their constituents.

Keep ReadingShow less

Can George Washington inspire Biden to greatness?

Clancy is co-founder of Citizen Connect and board member of the Bridge Alliance Education Fund. Citizen Connect is an initiative of the Bridge Alliance Education Fund, which also operates The Fulcrum.

King George III reputedly said George Washington was the greatest man in the world for voluntarily relinquishing power. The indisputable fact is that Washington’s action remains remarkable in human history. And he actually did it at least two times.

On Dec. 23, 1783, Washington resigned his commission as commander of the Continental Army and returned to Mount Vernon. He did it again when he declined to run for a third term as president by publishing his Farewell Address on Sept. 19, 1796. In June 1799 Washington was yet again urged to run for president and declined.

His reasoning on each occasion was a complex mix of the personal and political, but the bedrock was an unwavering commitment to put the good of the nation above personal gain and the factions that would ultimately become our toxic party system.

Keep ReadingShow less