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Politics isn’t cool, it’s hot! Do emotions influence political attitudes?

Periodic Reporting for period 2 - HotPolitics (Politics isn’t cool, it’s hot! Do emotions influence political attitudes? )

Reporting period: 2018-09-04 to 2019-09-03

Europeans and Americans are anxious about the number of refugees entering their country; angry about unresponsive political elites; or sad how immigrants are treated. To answer the question whether these emotions influence citizens’ political attitudes, the state-of-the-art relies primarily upon self-reported emotions. Yet, when asked to self-report emotions, people are likely to mix their initial emotion with their cognitive evaluation which leads to an invalid measure of the emotion. In this Marie Sklodowska-Curie Action (MSCA) Global Fellowshiop, called HotPolitics, I employ a ground-breaking methodological design by not relying upon self-reported emotions but measuring emotions via the actual physiological responses that citizens experience. Physiological responses are automatic, directed by the autonomous nervous system, when the brain experiences emotion. So, by building upon research in psychology, political science and communication science, I move beyond self-reported measures of emotions and theorize and assess whether emotions – measured using physiological responses – influence citizens’ political attitudes. To answer this question, this project consists of two research objectives: Which citizens experience which physiological responses to political messages (Objective 1)? And do physiological responses to politics influence political attitudes (Objective 2)? These objectives are test using a set of studies that are conducted at Temple University in the United States (outgoing phase) and the University of Amsterdam (incoming phase). This project aims to inform politicians, journalists and citizens. In the contemporary society, many observers claim that emotions play a central role in modern politics but their knowledge how emotions influence politics is limited. HotPolitics will answer this question and I will communicate my findings so that people will learn more about this important issue.
In the outgoing phase, I have worked at Temple University for the period of one year. I was bases at the Department of Political Science of Temple University and affiliated with the Behavioural Foundations Laboratory of Professor Arceneaux – the host of the outgoing phase. In the incoming phase I worked at the Amsterdam School of Communication Research at the University of Amsterdam with Professor de Vreese.

In this project, I show that show that people respond with more arousal and more negative affect in response to political messages that they disagree with. Moreover, I find that arousal and negative affect influence attitude change. When arousal or negative affect increases people change their attitudes more. At the same time, self-reported measure of emotions in responses to political messages were measured. We find that only anxiety – but not anger or enthusiasm – influences attitude change. When self-reported anxiety goes up, people change their attitudes more. These findings show that both physiological and cognitive-emotional responses to political communication influence political attitudes. I fail to find any evidence that these processes are different for people on the left and right.

The findings of this project show that people respond physiological to political communication. The responses are conditional upon the extremity of a persons’ attitudes and their opinion on the issue. The physiological responses to political communication trigger attitude change and this process is independent from that what people say they feel towards politics.

The findings of this project have been discussed with academics at workshops and conferences. The general public could participate in lab demonstrations. Elite decision makers and journalists have been informed in workshops. The finding have been widely discussed in national and international media.
I have moved beyond the state of the art in various ways. First, I have developed a new research line which uses physiological responses to politics. While arousal has been used by some people, HotPolitics has pre-registered expectations about specific facial muscles such as the corrugator and the labii. Doing so, this project is the first to theorize whether the arousal people experience in responses to politics is explicitly negative and whether it is more likely to be a sign of anger/anxiety – as captured by the corrugator – or a sign of disgust – as captured by the labii. Second, the cross national set-up of the project is unique. By collecting data in the United States and the Netherlands it will be possible to theorize whether physiological responses to politics are similar across two very different contexts. This is among the first comparative projects in this research agenda. Third, I have written pre-analysis plans belonging to my experiments. The use of pre-analysis plans in the study on the physiological responses to politics has not been done so far. This is important because there are many ways in which physiological responses can be modelled so pre-registering them, enhances the transparency of the research process.

By the end of this project, I was able to answer the overarching research question: Do emotional responses to political messages influence citizens’ political attitudes? This project impacts the research agenda on the physiological responses to politics because the three major contributions outlined above will push this literature an important step forward. This project also impact society because there is contemporary society a lot of attention for the angry or anxious citizen. I have been able to inform people, policy makers, journalists and politicians when and what causes people to experience emotions and how these emotion influence citizens’ opinions.
Working at home
Office 1
Office 2
Campus life 1
Campus life 2
Recruitment for the study
Temple from the air
Biking Philadelphia
In the Lab with my son
Data collection with Research Assistants