Emotions got the best of us this election, psychology professor says

Anger, fear and dissatisfaction ruled the election cycle, according to researchers


(Gage Skidmore/Flickr)

AMHERST — The 2016 presidential campaign cycle is teeming with fear-mongering advertisements and anger-inducing debates. These emotions have serious implications for the way voters process information about the candidates and decide with whom to cast their vote, according to University of Massachusetts Amherst professor of psychology Linda Isbell.

Isbell’s paper from the last presidential election, “The Emotional Citizen: How Feelings Drive Political Preferences and Behavior” and experimental study “How I Vote Depends on How I Feel: The Differential Impact of Anger and Fear on Political Information Processing” tackle how a voter’s emotions can affect how one would look at a candidate — and therefore impact the voter’s candidate evaluations.

Isbell and Michael Parker’s study took a selection of UMass students from a subject pool and asked them to write about a personal life experience that made them feel angry or fearful. This primed them to feel that certain emotion, much like when an event puts someone in a bad mood.

The subjects of the study were then asked to engage in a task of looking at two unknown, made-up candidates with different kinds of information. They were given general information like the candidate’s background, education and things that give an overall picture of who they were and information focused on specific issue positions.

The study found when people are angry, they tend to focus on global pieces of information —stereotypes, categories, traits over behaviors or the party over issues or candidate endorsements from different organizations. This type of information processing is implicit or unconscious. You process it all in a way beyond your control. 

On the other hand, fearful individuals tend to make their decisions based on how much they agree with the candidates on the specific issues. This type of processing is explicit, or conscious. You know and control what you are processing and why.

“You can think of anger as big picture stuff, and fear is detail-oriented,” said Isbell. “The interesting thing is the fearful people really chose the candidate based on the issues and who they agreed with. The angry people chose a candidate based on which candidate they accessed more general pieces of information about, which is not the way you’re supposed to make decisions in a democracy.”

Parkers and Isbell’s study has implications for understanding the way people interpret and vote for candidates.

The feeling of anger promotes the sentiment of voting for candidates who are well-recognized, regardless of their beliefs on issues. However, the feeling of fear encourages individuals to vote for candidates whose positions on specific issues are congruent with their own thus leading to more thoughtful, meaningful and self-relevant choices.

Fear encourages people to analyze more information about a candidate, while anger encourages them to vote with their gut, or their most readily available option in their mind.

“I’m voting for the Green Party this election because I’m not a fan of Hillary Clinton. She is pretty much a representative of everything that is wrong with politics in this country,” said Andrew Massa, a UMass senior studying economics. “I’m voting out of disgust — or I guess you could say anger.”

Self-identified Republican Andrew Massa similarly mirrors the emotions expressed by self-identified Democrat Megan Fox.

“I’m voting for Hillary Clinton because the other option is Donald Trump who I believe is fundamentally dangerous to the well-being of this country,” said Megan Fox, a UMass freshman political science major. “I’m not a fully dedicated Clinton supporter. I guess I’m voting because I’m angry at Trump. I don’t think he’s fit to be the face of America, so I’m angry at him for believing that the American people are stupid enough to elect someone like him.”

The sentiment here characterizes Isbell’s study and shows that the 2016 election is carried with a heavy amount of emotion, typically categorizing with fear but overcoming with anger.  

“There are also a lot of people who are very fearful, and what’s important about the emotional component of this whole thing is that emotions don’t just exist singularly,” Isbell said. “A person could be about either candidate or any person could be this way about any object, feeling both angry and fearful.”

Within an election cycle, people experience anxiety, stress and even pain after acting in a way that appears to conflict with their beliefs and preferences about themselves or others. This is why many voters go to sources who affirm their beliefs rather than counter them. A strong divide forms between parties and there is heavy emotion with that divide.

People have become so much more emotionally attached to the parties they belong to. In fact, studies show that they intensely dislike members of the other party. That’s a pretty strong emotion,” said Ray La Raja, UMass professor of political science.

This has become especially true for the 2016 election where the two major party nominees are among the least liked candidates in a long time. With such dissatisfaction illuminates feelings of fear and anger in citizens.

A survey conducted by Pew Research Center in June 2016 found that 41 percent of registered voters said it is difficult to choose between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton because neither would make a good president. This number is lower than any election since 1992.

Email Morgan at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter at @HughesMorgan_ .
Email Caeli at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter @caeli_chesin.

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