People like to believe that their political opinions are founded in rational assessment of the facts and that emotions play only a small role, if any, in determining their attitudes. Despite this commonly held belief, a 2012 study conducted by Timothy J. Ryan published in the Journal of Politics revealed that anger can be a tool for politicians to encourage information seeking and therefore influence the formation of opinions. Ryan states that, “Political scientists have drawn from a strong literature in psychology showing that emotions are not just the end result of thinking about politics. Emotions can actually guide thinking about politics. For instance, several studies show that feeling anxiety motivates citizens to vote and think more carefully about political issues”.
Ryan’s article explored the behavior of Internet users when confronted with anger inducing political advertisements. The participants, while surfing Facebook, were over 2 times more likely to click on a political advertisement designed to evoke anger than an advertisement with a neutral message. It seems that our emotions, particularly anger, can help determine what we are drawn to.
Even the most uninterested citizens are subjected to political advertisements through almost every media avenue. Ryan warns, “Politicians — in their speeches, advertising, and other messages — can evoke emotions in ways that are subtle, but that powerfully influence how we interact with the political world”. Political scientists have a great incentive to motivate potential voters to feel anxious or angry, as it is associated with increased political behavior. Specifically they can increase the odds of a person gaining access to heavily biased political material with which they may alter their opinions.
It makes sense that advertisements and political media that create anxiety would encourage a person to engage in more active research on political topics and create more informed opinions. Gaining information on the topic is one key way to ease anxiety. Ryan’s research adds to this notion that anger also can play a vital role. Though anger may draw people into a website to look for more political information, it does not guarantee that the quality of the information found will be very good. Partisan political groups can entice susceptible Internet users to look at their political messages by utilizing controversial taglines to draw attention. The Internet can be a powerful tool for spreading political information, but users must be aware of the role their emotions play in what they read.
By Katie Ledvina
Katie is a senior at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay with majors in Psychology, Public Administration, and Political Science and minors in Human Development and Global Studies. Following graduation Katie plans to begin work in administration or research for a public or nonprofit human service provider in the field of public health.