Political Communication  

High Anxiety—The Role of Emotion in Political Decision-Making

In his book, “The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation,” American author and psychology professor Drew Westen writes, “In politics, when reason and emotions collide, emotion invariably wins. Although the marketplace of ideas is a great place to shop for policies, the marketplace that matters most in American politics is the marketplace of emotions.”

It is this idea of the inextricably twined connection between emotion and political decision-making that sparked the interest of University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications Public Relations Associate Professor and Department Chair Myiah Hutchens and alumna and Visiting Assistant Professor at the University of Kansas Ekaterina Romanova.

Years of research show that people are swayed more by emotion than by reason when it comes to participating in the democratic process. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing, because emotion, particularly anxiety, can motivate us to action.

The authors write, “By examining the unique role of anxiety in political decision-making, our study provides a more nuanced understanding of how negative emotions can impact democracy.”

The team evaluated pre-election (2020) and post-election (2021) data from the American National Election Studies based on four measures: anxiety, information-seeking, internal political efficacy (defined as “the feeling that individual political action does have, or can have, an impact upon the political process”) and political participation.

The study indicated that anxious voters are significantly more likely to seek information about candidates and issues, which empowers them to feel like engaged actors in the political arena. Earlier research showed that voter anxiety led to decreased political participation. But this study found just the opposite—the more anxious people were, the more likely they were to show up to their voting station on Election Day.

There is one caveat: the data was collected during a global pandemic followed by the Capitol takeover on Jan. 6, 2021, which could skew the participants’ reactions. The scholars write that “it is plausible to argue that anxiety levels would remain high post-election, given the ongoing political turmoil.”

Overall, they confirm the correlation between emotion and political decision-making, writing that “even negative emotions can be linked to positive outcomes. The results of the study are democratically optimistic since we found one more key to making citizens more engaged in political processes.”

The original paper, “Does Anxiety Make Us ‘Informed’ Citizens? The Mediating Role of Information-Seeking and Internal Political Efficacy in Forming Political Attitudes,” was published online in Political Studies Review on June 14, 2023.

Authors: Ekaterina Romanova, Myiah Hutchens.

This summary was written by Gigi Marino.

Posted: October 18, 2023
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