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The Emotions of Politics

Emotions  are  a  set  of  physiological  and  psychological  changes  within  the  body  and  brain which  come  as  a response  to  external,  situational  stimuli  (Damasio,  1994;  Lazarus,  1991; LeDoux,  1996;  Marcus,  2002;  Marcus, Neuman, & MacKuen, 2000).

The impact of emotions on electoral behaviour has been shown in a number of studies (Abelson, Kinder, Peters, &  Fiske,  1982;  Conover  &  Feldman,  1986;  Kinder  &  Sears,  1985;  Simon,  1985),  but  a  systematic  theory  of  the political relevance of emotion has only recently been formulated by George Marcus and colleagues; it is referred to as the Theory of Affective Intelligence  (1993, 2000). The theory is based on the neuropsychological approach to  emotions developed by Damasio (1994) and LeDoux (1996).

The  disposition  system  is  responsible  for  “managing  reliance  on  habits  and  previously  learned  strategies” (Marcus, 2002, p. 46).  Relying on sensory information, it performs a comparison: is the plan going as usual? If it is the habit is continued and the emotional reaction is enthusiasm.

Enthusiasm has been shown to stimulate the increase of the turnout intention. 

When you want to quit playing around with sticks and balls, and get into the serious areas of Aggressive Persuasion, this is the area you start in. 

The most effective political propaganda campaign currently running (and has been fore the last twelve years) is the one convincing you that voting is a waist of time and nothing changes because of your vote. If you ever wondered why some of these guys keep getting re-elected you can lay that answer at this campaigns feet.
In most elections parties hire political consultants and invest important resources into constructing elaborate campaigns aimed at maximizing their chances of winning the elections. In order to achieve a victory, “[c]ampaigns seek to increase the number of supporters for their candidate and to encourage those supporters to be politically active” (Brader, 2006, p. 20). In other words, campaigns try to covert and to mobilize.

Mobilisation is seen as a key strategy to increase the parties vote share by activating the party’s base of supporters (Bradshaw, 1995). The general consensus in the literature is that, by using get-out-the-vote techniques (Guzzetta, 2006), campaigns do mobilize voters (Ansolabehere, 2006b; Clarke, Sanders, Stewart, & Whiteley, 2009; Schmitt-Beck & Farrell, 2002). 

However, the consensus regarding the mobilizing effect of campaigns does not extend to the potential effects negative campaigning has on turnout. On the one hand, studies claim that negativity decreases turnout, depresses interest in politics and increases apathy and distrust (Ansolabehere & Iyengar, 1997). On the other hand, Finkel and Geer (1998) show that negative ads tend to actually mobilize. Adopting a middle ground position, Kaufman et al. (2008) suggest that negative ads neither mobilize nor do they demobilize, while Vreese and Semetko (2004) agree that negativity does not depress turnout nor does it hinder mobilisation.

Consequently, a very pertinent question arises: why do different studies reach opposing conclusions with respect to the effects of negative advertising? (How) Is it possible that negative campaigning can both increase and decrease turnout? 

Campaigns are developed to maximize ones chances of winning the election by appealing to reason and, more importantly, by manipulating through emotion (see e.g. (Guzzetta, 2006; Plasser & Plasser, 2002; Shea & Burton, 2006). 

There are “systematic patterns to the use of specific emotional appeals in political campaigns” (Ridout & Searles, 2011, p. 454) and humans interpret political events through their affective responses (Kinder & Sears, 1985, p. 672). Consequently, in order to understand the effects of negative campaigns have on turnout the emotions they induce need to be included in the equation.

For example, markers and the available studies show anger and anxiety have much different effects on turnout.
  • negative political ads that contain legitimate criticisms induce anxiety
  • anxiety is experienced towards an out-party increases the likelihood of turnout. 
  • anxiety is experienced towards the preferred party -- turnout will not be affected.  
  • negative political communication which is accusatory and attributes blame leads people to experience anger. 
  • experiencing anger towards either the preferred party or an out-party leads to decreases turnout. 

To interpret voting behavior both political science and psychology expertise were necessary and therefore the field of political psychology emerged. Political psychology researchers study ways in which affective influence may help voters make more informed voting choices, with some proposing that effect may explain how the electorate makes informed political choices in spite of low overall levels of political attentiveness and sophistication.

To make inferences and predictions about behavior concerning a voting decision, certain factors such as gender, race, culture or religion must be considered. Moreover, key public influences include the role of emotions, political socialization, tolerance of diversity of political views and the media. The effect of these influences on voting behavior is best understood through theories on the formation of attitudes, beliefs, schema, knowledge structures and the practice of information processing.

Campaigns, negativity and turnout

Campaigns are designed with clear goals, which they try to achieve by “carefully discerning voter preferences through scientific survey research, strafing voters based upon these preferences, and then providing a tailored communication to each group” (Shea & Burton, 2006, p. 9). A review of the professional campaign management literature show that, firstly campaigns aim to mobilize their core supporters (Bradshaw, 1995) through positive messages about their party, but also by way of negative messages portraying out parties. 

Secondly, they strive to decrease out-party supporters’ reliance on partisanship and increase their reliance on issues (Lees-Marshment, 2002; Shea & Burton, 2006) by approaching these individuals with negative communications that targets their preferred party. Given that campaigns try to use negative messages in different ways and with different aims, it is  important to understand what effects campaign negativity actually has on the voter behaviour.

In the US, campaign commercials (or political short ads) are the dominant means of campaign communication (Ansolabehere & Iyengar, 1997) and they are, in most cases, negative (Kaid, 1999; Kaid & Holtz-Bacha, 2006). In the UK, according to Kavanagh (1995), negativity is seen as an undesirable import from the US and both the media and the voters claim to dislike negative campaigns. This is paradoxical given that negative campaigns do gain potency due to the controversy they generate (Kavanagh, 1995) and the media is more prone to report negative news (the Nuffield Electoral studies as quoted by Kavanagh, 1995). 

Even more, following the American model, the level of negativity of British campaigns has increased in recent times (Heerde, 2007; Plasser & Plasser, 2002). Nonetheless there is no clear evidence regarding its effects on turnout. The literature is divided between two competing hypotheses: the demobilisation hypothesis and the stimulation hypothesis.

According to the demobilisation hypothesis negative ads (or attack ads) demobilize by decreasing confidence in public officials and increasing disgust and alienation towards the targeted candidate (Ansolabehere, Iyengar, Simon, & Valentino, 1994). Furthermore, Ansolabehere and Iyengar’s (1997), using both individual-level experiments and aggregate-level analyses, show that negative advertising decreases the likelihood of turnout for the supporters of the targeted candidate but not for the supporters of the sponsor. Their results are, however, contested by Wattenberg and Brains (1999) who argue that the aggregate study is “deeply flawed” and, as a consequence, Ansolabehere and Iyengar exaggerated the demobilizing effect of negativity. Nonetheless, the demobilisation hypothesis also finds some support in the work of Kahn and Kenney (1999).

These authors have a mixed position and argue that depending on the type of ad, negativity can both depress and increase turnout. They show that negative ads which contain legitimate criticisms (“relevant criticism presented in an appropriate manner” p. 878) targeted at a candidate seem to increase the likelihood of casting a ballot. However, ads that strongly “criticize opponents in an accusatory and ad hominem manner” (Kahn & Kenney, 1999, p. 878) depress turnout by increasing disgust with politics. Finally, testing the demobilisation hypothesis through a large scale experiment, Clinton and Lapinski (2004), find no evidence for the claimed demobilizing effect of negativity. They note that “it is never the case that exposure to negative advertising decreases either the reported probability of voting or the actual voting” (2004, p.92). Moreover, they show that political advertising has a weak positive effect on turnout, regardless of the tone. Their conclusions are consistent with the stimulation hypothesis, which finds strong support in the work of Finkel and Geer (1998).

Waismel-Manor, I.; Ifergane, G.; Cohen, H. (2011), "When endocrinology and democracy collide: Emotions, cortisol and voting at national elections", European Neuropsychopharmacology 21 (11): 789–795, doi:10.1016/j.euroneuro.2011.03.003
A recent study on voters in Israel found that voters' cortisol levels, the so-called "stress hormone," were significantly higher immediately before entering a polling place than personal baseline levels measured on a similar, non-election day. This may be significant for voting choices since cortisol is known to have an impact on memory consolidation, memory retrieval, and reward- and risk-seeking behavior. Acute stress may disrupt decision making and impact cognition.

Additionally, research done on voters in Ann Arbor and Durham after the US 2008 elections showed partial evidence that voting for the losing candidate may lead to increased cortisol levels relative to levels among voters who chose the winning candidate

Finkel and Geer (1998) argue that negative ads mobilize as they can induce concerns about the outcome of the election. Negative ads conveying negative information have a greater power to inform as they are more visible and noticeable than positive ads. Furthermore, they induce shaper affective reactions, which coupled with the increase of political information increases the motivation of turning out. In essence, criticising the opponent sends the message that the outcome matters (Finkel & Geer, 1998). 

The stimulation hypothesis is also supported by Freedman and Goldstein’s (1999) research. They show that negative campaigning, researched in ‘real elections with real ads’ does not depress ‘real turnout’.  To the contrary, the authors find evidence that it actually stimulates it. This is consistent with Geer and Lau’s (2006) conclusion that campaign negativism stimulated rather the depressed turnout in American elections in the past 20 years (Geer & Lau, 2006). 

Lau, Sigelman, Heldman and Babbitt (1999) conclude that there is “little evidence to warrant the fears of those who believe that electoral participation is imperilled by the increasingly widespread use of negative political advertisements. Participatory democracy may be on the wane in the United States, but the evidence reviewed in the UK suggests that negative political advertising has relatively little to do with it” (1999, p. 856).

Even though not explicitly discussed, the causal mechanisms presented by the proponents of both the demobilization and the stimulation hypotheses have emotional underpinnings. 

The loss aversion theory by Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman is often associated with voting behavior as people are more likely to use their vote to avoid the impact of an unfavorable policy rather than supporting a favorable policy. From a psychological perspective, value references are crucial to determine individual preferences. For instance, tax breaks are a value which voters don’t want to lose thus they are more likely to vote for the candidate that promises such benefit, instead of voting for a candidate closer to their political beliefs..

Finkel and Geer (1998) acknowledge that negativity induces affective reactions. Ansolabehere and Iyengar (1997) note that negative campaigning demobilizes as it induces disgust; while Kahn & Kenney (1999) state that they make the electorate feel uncomfortable. Consequently, we argue that looking at the emotions negative political communications induce is a good starting point in trying to explain the contradictory results detailed above. Specifically, we will focus on the two negative emotions that have been shown to impact political behavior: anxiety and anger.

To understand the role of emotions in a political setting we turn to the Theory of Affective Intelligence (henceforth TAI) developed by Marcus and his colleagues (Marcus & MacKuen, 1993; Marcus, et al., 2000). The TAI identifies several emotional subsystems which regulate the occurrence of emotions: the disposition system4 and the surveillance system. While the former is linked to the induction of enthusiasm5, the later induces anxiety (Marcus et al., 2000). According to Marcus, anxiety can only be experienced towards the preferred party (Marcus, MacKuen, & Neuman, 2011). Once anxiety towards the preferred party is induced it breaks habit, stimulates information search and reason (Marcus, et al., 2000). However, according to Marcus (2002) anxiety experienced towards the preferred party does not have a direct on impact political participation. This means that negative ads which induce anxiety towards the preferred party do not increase nor do they decrease the likelihood of turnout.

Even though the TAI assumes that anxiety can only be experienced towards the preferred party, we argue that anxiety can also be experienced towards an out-party. The surveillance system, much like the primary appraisal system detailed by Lazarus (1991, pp. 149-152) constantly scans the environment for potential threats. In the political environment, threats perceived to impact a person’s well-being can easily emerge from the opposition. 

While agreeing with Marcus’ postulates on anxiety, we also argue that experiencing anxiety is not, by any means, limited to one’s preferred party. Consistent with Lazarus, one can easily feel anxious towards any political object, including an out-party, in which case the behavioural consequences will differ from the pattern presented by the TAI. Anxiety experienced towards an out-party is also induced by negative communications but is not seen to have a negative bearing on the habitual activity; rather it actually strengthens the habit and increases the likelihood of political participation.
Disgust is the primary target for Conservative manipulation. Emotional stimulation of disgust directed toward a Conservative audience has profound effect. Inbar, Yoel, David A. Pizarro, and Paul Bloom. "Conservatives are more easily disgusted than liberals." Cognition and Emotion 23.4 (2009): 714-725.
 If a person is anxious or worried by the perceived negative effects the policies of an out-party might have on his well being, we argue that the person will be likely to act in a way which would decrease the chances of this threat materializing. This can be achieved by preventing the out-party winning the elections, through turning out and voting habitually (i.e. for the preferred party). 

These psychological mechanisms are consistent with the assumptions of the stimulation hypothesis. Both Kahn and Kenney (1999) and Finkel and Geer (1998) agree in that negative campaigning increase turnout because people get worried about the potential outcome of the election and following a risk avoidance strategy they go to the polls. Consequently, we state that negative communication that induces anxiety towards ones out-party increases the likelihood of turnout.

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