This article tests the assumption that candidates' attack behavior is a result of their rational consideration of potential benefits and likely risks. Based on candidate surveys from German state elections, we demonstrate that i.) attacks are an important strategy in (subnational) election campaigns; ii.) on balance, candidates regard attacking opponents as a costly instead of a beneficial strategy; iii.) the differential between benefits and costs is positively associated with attack behavior; nevertheless, most candidates attack even when costs exceed benefits; iv.) candidate profiles and the constraints under which candidates campaign are rarely reflected in benefit-cost calculations; v.) the suggested mediating role of the benefit-cost differential on attack behavior is definitely not the rule. Our results challenge the fundamental assumption that the decision to ‘go negative’ is primarily based on rational choice. The findings have implications for conceptualizing and measuring negative campaigning and provide avenues for further research.