Motivation and emotion/Book/2018/Political psychology and emotion

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Political psychology and emotion:
What is the role of emotion in political psychology?

Overview[edit | edit source]

As a relatively new psychological field, not many people have heard of political psychology. As Houghton (2001, pg. 51) explains, political psychology is the study of the of human psychology and its effect on the field of politics and international relations. This discipline emerged after the ending of World War Two when psychologists wanted to understand how well-adjusted people from a Western country were able to order and carry out the events that occurred within the Nazi concentration camps (Stone, Johnson, Beall, Meindl, Smith & Graham, 2014). After its emergence, political psychology generally followed the trends that occurred in mainstream psychology. For example, it examined personality profiles in connection to political power structures which resulted in the development of the influential Authoritarian Personality Theory. Political psychologists were also prominent in emphasising that political actors do not act according to rationality but to various cognitive biases (Stone et al., 2014). Then came the influential book, Handbook of Political Psychology, by Jeanne Knutson (1973) who drew from disciplines such as sociology, psychology, and political science to create a work that encompassed the whole field of political psychology and clarified its development as a psychological discipline.

As political psychology continues to grow in prominence due to the influence of globalisation, it becomes important that researchers and citizens alike understand the role of emotion in politics and how that can influence political decisions. But first, an accurate understanding of what are emotions should be given.


"a complex reaction pattern, involving experiential, behavioural, and physiological elements, by which an individual attempts to deal with a personally significant matter or event. The specific quality of the emotion (e.g., fear, shame) is determined by the specific significance of the event." (APA Dictionary of Psychology, 2018)

A good example of this is when a person encounters something physically threatening, such as an angry animal in close proximity, that will likely generate a feeling of fear. In comparison, if someone were to win a prize, they would be likely to feel joy or surprise. Emotions are what drive people to act, or to not act, to achieve the goals they place for themselves and so are an important element of psychological research (Halperin & Pliskin, 2015).

Political psychology and emotion[edit | edit source]

By studying emotions in the field of political psychology, researchers are able to examine a wide range of political attitudes and behaviours. For example, evaluations of electoral candidates, perceptions of the performance of political leaders, public voting behaviour, and opinions on public policy issues (Miller, 2011)[grammar?]. Research performed in this area has predominately used the Affective Intelligence theory to examine how emotion influences political choice.

Affective intelligence theory[edit | edit source]

Affective intelligence theory (AIT) holds that people have two emotion-driven decision-making processes, one that is heuristic based and another that is effort based (Petersen, 2015). The heuristic based process, known as the dispositional system, is one that relies upon familiarity and habitual choice (Valentino, Brader, Groendendyk, Gregorowicz & Hutchings, 2011). For example, if a supporter of the Australian Labor Party (ALP) were to vote in an election, as long as the party had consistent policies then it is unlikely they would waste time learning about new candidates. When people have previously made an informed choice about something that had positive outcomes, so long as circumstances remain the same, then they are more likely to make the same choice in future.

In the circumstances had changed, for example, if the ALP had changed their political platform to something completely new, then the ALP supporter would use the second decision-making process known as the surveillance system (Valentino et al., 2011) In contrast to the heuristic process, the surveillance system involves careful thought and attention to the environment when faced with unfamiliar circumstances (Mackuen, Marcus, Neuman & Keele, 2007). This method of careful thinking is more time consuming and can induce greater cost, and as such, it is not used as often as the dispositional system.

Anxiety and anger are both emotions that have been the focus of researchers as they seek to understand what role it plays in politics (Weeks, 2015; Valentino et al., 2011; Parker & Isbell, 2010; Brader, 2005).

Anxiety[edit | edit source]

What is anxiety?

"an emotion characterized by apprehension and somatic symptoms of tension in which an individual anticipates impending danger, catastrophe, or misfortune" (APA Dictionary of Psychology, 2018)

Research into the role of anxiety in politics has found that the emotion promotes information seeking behaviour, avoidance of the object that incites the feeling of anxiety, and promotes people to use the surveillance system[factual?]. Anxiety makes a person pay closer attention to news coverage to what is going on and put aside party partisanship to consider what would be the most effective response (Marcus, MacKuen & Newuman, 2011; Brader, 2005),

Figure 1. Anxiety based political advertising

A study performed by Gadarian and Albertson (2014), researchers induced feelings of anxiety within experiment participants on the topic of immigration who then had the opportunity to gain further information on a website that had both threatening and non-threatening coverage regarding immigration[grammar?]. The aim of this research was to measure whether participants would take the opportunity for information gathering and which type of coverage they would be more attracted to, threatening or non-threatening. What they found is that inducing anxiety did indeed motivate participants to engage in information seeking behaviour. Furthermore, that that they engaged with the threatening information which they were supportive of the biased nature of it (Gadarian & Albertson, 2014)[grammar?]. Anxiety-based political advertising[grammar?] This acceptance of biased information is expected as previous research has shown anxiety is positively correlated with conservatism which is a political ideology that is guarded against immigration (Jost, 2017; Jost, Nam, Amodido & Van Bavel, 2014).

Studies like the one conducted by Gadarian and Albertson (2014) allows for political psychologists to understand how emotional appeals by political leaders can manipulate the behaviour of the voting population to sway a certain direction.

Anger[edit | edit source]

What is anger?

"an emotion characterized by tension and hostility arising from frustration, real or imagined injury by another, or perceived injustice. It can manifest itself in behaviours designed to remove the object of the anger (e.g., determined action) or behaviours designed merely to express the emotion (e.g., swearing). " (APA Dictionary of Psychology, 2018)

Contrary to anxiety outcomes, anger actually decreases information seeking and enhances hasty decision making (Sirin, Villalobos & Geva, 2011; Valentino et al., 2008), increase political participation (Huddy & Feldman, 2011), and creates the perception that a core aspect of public life is under threat (Morgan, Wisneski & Skitka, 2011). Anger as an emotion using the dispositional system of decision making, demanding action be taken and suppresses learning (Miller, 2011).

In a study performed by Iyer, Schmader & Lickel (2007), the authors sought to examine what emotions could predict opposition behaviour by members of the public in opposition to policies that they deemed as illegitimate. To do this they conducted an experiment on two different groups, one made up of American citizens, and one made up of British citizens, to examine the anger response in regards to the harm caused by both countries occupation of Iraq. What they found is that that when participants were angry it motivated them towards wanting to commit action, in this case, the withdrawal of occupying forces from Iraq, bringing the agents responsible for the harm to account, and providing compensation to victims country. These participants want action to take place to regain the collective image of the nation which they felt their countries occupation of Iraq had violated (Iyer et al., 2007).

Studies like the one conducted by Iyer and associates (2007) allows for political psychologists to understand how emotion can promote political participation of the public against state authority.

Activity[edit | edit source]

As an activity to better understand how emotions are used in political psychology and its effects on the public, listen to these famous speeches by political leaders to see if you can determine which emotion they are seeking to envoke. Contemplate how you feel as you listen to them and how you would behave if you heard them in person.

Table 1. Different types of emotional appeals by political leaders
Political leader Speech Possible emotions
Prime Minister Winston Churchill We shall fight on the beaches Determination / resolve / courage
Prime Minister Kevin Rudd National apology to the Stolen Generation Sorrow / sadness / remorse
President Donald Trump Republican National Convention Anger / fear / hatred
President George W. Bush Junior Ground zero 9/11 Unity / strength / vengeance
President John Kennedy Cuban Missile Crisis Resolve / calmness / caution
Dr Martin Luther King I have a dream Hope / unity / passion

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

Emotion plays a primary role in the field of political psychology. This book chapter examined two different emotions, anxiety and anger, to help provide an understanding of some of the ways emotion is used. First, anxiety is often used by political leaders as a tool of manipulation to get votes to use the surveillance system of decision making, to make them aware of potential threats and engage in information seeking that has been linked to biased processing.

The chapter then turned to the emotion of anger and showed how anger can be used by the public to turn against a state government for perceived violation of what the collective image of their country is. Anger, in contrast to anxiety, uses the dispositional system of decision making, to demand that action be taken so the perceived threat to public life is halted.

These are just two emotions that have been examined in this book chapter but they demonstrate just how emotions can motivate people to act in certain ways and what role they have is political psychology.

See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

APA Dictionary of Psychology. (2018). Retrieved from

Brader, T. (2005). Striking a Responsive Chord: How Political Ads Motivate and Persuade Voters by Appealing to Emotions. American Journal Of Political Science, 49(2), 388. https://doi:10.2307/3647684

Gadarian, S., & Albertson, B. (2013). Anxiety, Immigration, and the Search for Information. Political Psychology, 35(2), 133-164. https://doi:10.1111/pops.12034

Halperin, E., & Pliskin, R. (2015). Emotions and Emotion Regulation in Intractable Conflict: Studying Emotional Processes Within a Unique Context. Political Psychology, 36, 119-150. https://doi:10.1111/pops.12236

Houghton, D. (2011). Political Psychology. In J. Ishiyama & M. Breuning, Political Science: A Reference Handbook (pp. 51-59). Thousand Oaks, California: Sage Publications.

Iyer, A., Schmader, T., & Lickel, B. (2007). Why Individuals Protest the Perceived Transgressions of Their Country: The Role of Anger, Shame, and Guilt. Personality And Social Psychology Bulletin, 33(4), 572-587. https://doi:10.1177/0146167206297402

Jost, J. (2017). Ideological Asymmetries and the Essence of Political Psychology. Political Psychology, 38(2), 167-208. https://doi:10.1111/pops.12407

Jost, J., Nam, H., Amodio, D., & Van Bavel, J. (2014). Political Neuroscience: The Beginning of a Beautiful Friendship. Political Psychology, 35, 3-42. https://doi:10.1111/pops.12162

Knutson, J. (1973). Handbook of political psychology (1st ed.). London: Jossey-Bass.

Mackuen, M., Marcus, G., Neuman, W., & Keele, L. (2007). The Third Way: The Theory of Affective Intelligence and American Democracy. In W. Neuman, G. Marcus, A. Crigler & M. MacKuen, The Affect Effect: Dynamics of emotion in political thinking and behaviour (1st ed., pp. 124-151). Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Miller, P. (2011). The Emotional Citizen: Emotion as a Function of Political Sophistication. Political Psychology, 32(4), 575-600. https://doi:10.1111/j.1467-9221.2011.00824.x

Parker, M., & Isbell, L. (2010). How I Vote Depends on How I Feel. Psychological Science, 21(4), 548-550. https://doi:10.1177/0956797610364006

Petersen, M. (2015). Evolutionary Political Psychology: On the Origin and Structure of Heuristics and Biases in Politics. Political Psychology, 36, 45-78. https://doi:10.1111/pops.12237

Sirin, C., Villalobos, J., & Geva, N. (2011). Political information and emotions in ethnic conflict interventions. International Journal Of Conflict Management, 22(1), 35-59. https://doi:10.1108/10444061111103616

Stone, S., Johnson, K., Beall, E., Meindl, P., Smith, B., & Graham, J. (2014). Political psychology. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Cognitive Science, 5(4), 373-385. https://doi:10.1002/wcs.1293

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(1), 156-170. https://doi:10.1017/s0022381610000939

Weeks, B. (2015). Emotions, Partisanship, and Misperceptions: How Anger and Anxiety Moderate the Effect of Partisan Bias on Susceptibility to Political Misinformation. Journal Of Communication, 65(4), 699-719. https://doi:10.1111/jcom.12164

External links[edit | edit source]