Monday, November 5, 2012

An Emotional Election

Politics and emotions are deeply intertwined. Think of the last political conversation you had and how you reacted to it emotionally. Was your blood boiling with anger? Were you paralyzed with anxiety and worry about what might happen? Were you bouncing with enthusiasm and motivated to go get out the vote?

Bigger picture, how do these emotional-political experiences (specifically, of anger, anxiety, and enthusiasm) affect the ways we seek out and interpret political messages and engage in political behavior?

A snapshot of the current mood: 
Let's start by charting the emotions people are experiencing now, pre-election. This past weekend I asked 120 of my Berkeley intro psych students to report on their emotions surrounding the upcoming election. (Obvious disclaimer: this is far from a nationally representative sample.)

Overall, my students are reporting mostly positive, enthusiastic kinds of emotion. This is likely their first presidential election, and they're part of a notoriously politically enthusiastic campus community!

The next most common emotions are related to anxiety and worry. Anxiety signals or reflects feelings of uncertainty and existential threat, both of which run high during campaigns, when people are left not knowing who will be our leader, or how that will affect our rights and our future. 

Angry emotions are weak in this sample, with very low levels of hostility and irritability emerging.  As we’ll see below, however, anger has several effects upon political behavior. Even though my students aren’t reporting much anger, when they DO experience anger it likely matters.

Among my students, greater social liberalism was associated with feeling (or at least reporting) more emotions overall, which may reflect more socially conservative students avoiding their emotions or withdrawing emotionally from the race. However, this is merely speculative, and I wouldn’t read into these data - the “conservative” students here are probably relatively liberal compared to the rest of the country.

1. How do emotions affect the way we seek out and process political information? (Groenendyk, 2011 review)

Political ads frequently manipulate our emotions with music and imagery, whether they induce enthusiasm with a hopeful swell of violins or anxiety with daunting music behind a list of the threats a candidate’s campaign poses to you and your way of life. But how do the emotions engendered by these advertisements affect us?

As you would likely guess, ads that induce enthusiasm (feelings of hope, pride, and happiness) with emotional bells and whistles (relative to control ads with the same information and no emotional cues) increase motivation to participate in the campaign.
However, you’ll see below that this motivation does not necessarily translate to actual political participation…

Ads that induce anxiety (feelings of fear, nervousness, and worry) with emotional music and imagery (relative to those with the same information and no emotional cues) increase:

  • recall for information in that ad
  • seeking out further information (though not remembering that new information)
  • favoring ad sponsors.
Anxiety also increases political deliberation, making people more open-minded in seeking information and considering the political stances of the opposition.

In contrast, anger and its familial emotions (such as disgust, contempt, and bitterness) close people off to political information, decreasing several forms of political attention:

  • political information seeking in general (despite increasing reported attention to political issues)
  • motivation to seek out information about a candidate's platform
  • desire to learn about the opposition's platform.

2. How do emotions affect whether we actually vote or politically participate? (Valentino et al., 2011)

But do these three classes of emotions affect political behavior? That is, although enthusiasm increases motivation to participate politically, anxiety increases political information seeking, and anger depresses political information seeking, how do these emotions shape our proclivity to actually walk the political walk? 

Anger: Anger may decrease seeking out political information, but its effects on political participation are just the opposite:

  • People who were asked to focus on their feelings of anger about the election said they would be more likely to do different political behaviors (wearing a button, attending a rally, volunteering for a campaign).
  • People who felt angry before the 2008 election (in a phone survey) were more likely to actually enact political behaviors (they actually wore the buttons, registered voters, and the like).
  • source
  • Across 24 years of data, people who reported feeling more anger were more likely to do both costly political behaviors (attending a rally, working for a campaign, donating money) and cheap political behaviors (talking to others about voting, wearing a button). 

Taken with the effects of anger on information seeking, this array of results could mean we have a lot of ill-informed but angry activists running around and participating in election years (I’m sure we all know a few of these folks!). Anger is a powerful political motivator.

Anxiety: Feeling anxious increases information seeking, but appears to spur behavior to a lesser extent than anger:

  • People who focused on their feelings of anxiety about the election were no more likely to say they would do politically active behaviors.
  • People who said they felt more anxious before the 2008 election (phone survey) were actually less likely to enact political behaviors.
  • And when we separate political behaviors into its costly and cheap forms, researchers find – across 24 years of data – that anxiety predicted doing more cheap political behaviors (button wearing, e.g.) but not costly behaviors (such as donating money).

Thus, though the anxious among us may avidly seek political information and play with political ideas, their anxiety may actually demobilize their political behaviors. Feeling paralyzed with indecision and worry may have real consequences for political participation.

Enthusiasm: Enthusiasm increases motivation to participate, but the evidence that it predicts actual participation is mixed:
  • People who focused on their feelings of enthusiasm about the election were no more likely to say they would enact political behaviors.
  • People who said they felt enthusiastic prior to the 2008 election were no more likely to enact political behaviors.
  • But big picture, across 24 years of election data, enthusiasm does predict both costly and cheap forms of political engagement - its effects on these behaviors are just weaker than anger’s. 

Thus, though enthusiasm spurs motivation, its effects on participation are relatively feeble. Maybe its effects are more fleeting than anger’s, or perhaps it has to be paired with some other characteristic, emotion, or context for its impact to emerge.

In sum, to understand the effects of emotions on political thought and behavior, we must consider discrete types of emotions (rather than the global impact of feeling positively versus negatively). It seems that anger, anxiety, and enthusiasm each have unique effects upon how we seek out information and how we engage with our political system.

The emotion literature would also suggest that even emotions that are not directly relevant to the election will likely shape political thought and action in the coming 24 hours. This means we may see people who are pissed off about any number of things hauling themselves to the voting booths. And if you’re feeling unmotivated to hit the polls tomorrow, just focus for a while on how much you hate the opposition! There may be an upside to polarization and anger in politics: increased political engagement.

Do you think emotions inform your political information seeking? How about your political behavior? What other emotions do you think are relevant and what might their effects be upon these outcomes?

The papers:

Valentino, N., Brader, T., Groenendyk, E., Gregorowicz, K., & Hutchings, V. (2011). Election Night’s Alright for Fighting: The Role of Emotions in Political Participation The Journal of Politics, 73 (01), 156-170 DOI: 10.1017/S0022381610000939

Groenendyk, E. (2011). Current Emotion Research in Political Science: How Emotions Help Democracy Overcome its Collective Action Problem Emotion Review, 3 (4), 455-463 DOI: 10.1177/1754073911410746

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