Source: Ryan, T. J. (2012). What makes Us click? Demonstrating incentives for angry research with digital-age field experiments. Journal of Politics, 74. 1138-1152.
For more on this, read Is Anger What Makes Us Click?
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.
Last week, thanks to my good friend, Regan Gurung, I was lucky enough to sit down for a two-hour dinner with Dr. Albert Bandura. For those of you who don’t know of Dr. Bandura’s work, he’s arguably the most famous living psychologist (or, at least, amongst the top three) and certainly the most popular. His most famous work, The Bobo Doll Study, changed the way people thought of both learning and aggression, as it flew in the face of the accepted theories of the time, conditioning and catharsis, respectively.
The Bobo Doll Study, first done in 1961, is thought of by most psychologists to be one of the three most famous psychology studies of all time (along with the Milgram Obedience Experiments and the Stanford Prison Experiment). In fact, if you haven’t heard of it, it’s probably because you never took an intro psych class or because you took an intro psych class a very long time ago and simply forgot (i.e., it’s unlikely it wasn’t covered). What many people don’t realize, though, is that it wasn’t just one study. It was a series of studies that led to two books on aggression and paved the way for a massive shift in the way psychologists thought about learning. Consequently, his work matters to me as a psychologist, an anger and aggression researcher, and a teacher.
I don’t mind sounding a little bit star-struck by saying that this dinner was one of the highlights of my relatively young career. It wasn’t just fun, though. It was meaningful in other ways. Here are five things I learned (or was reminded of) from Dr. Bandura.
1. Basic research matters. In my research methods course, I try and drive home to students the idea that basic research is important. Even though applied research feels more exciting and more important (wouldn’t we all rather find the cure to something than do the studies that lead up to finding a cure?), the vast majority of applied research projects find their roots in basic research. Dr. Bandura provided me with more ammo for this discussion by reminding me that his original bobo doll study was not designed with any sort of application in mind. This was a study on learning and aggression, pure and simple. Yes, it was putting behaviorism to the test and, yes, it had clear implications to a host of areas (e.g., media violence, advertising). In fact, Dr. Bandura is now working on several international projects to apply this work. But, none of that changes the fact that it was originally carried out as a test of theory with no other intentions.
2. There’s an important place for social activism in academics. Even though his work started as basic research, his current work is clearly intended to bring about social change. He described a book he’s writing on moral disengagement where he will tackle a variety of politically controversial topics (e.g., gun violence, climate change). Meanwhile, he’s involved in literacy projects on at least three continents. To those who believe that professors should avoid any sort of activism, Dr. Bandura serves as a nice example of how wrong they are. He’s doing important work that changes the lives of people across the globe.
3. The support of your institution matters. One thing I was completely unaware of was that there had been many attempts to discredit Dr. Bandura early in his career. The Bob Doll Study, which he completed as an untenured professor at Stanford, was seen as a threat to some fairly powerful groups (television networks, advertising agencies, etc.). At one point, he was asked to testify at a congressional hearing on television violence and, as a result of his work, advertising standards were changed to cut out acts of violence. Not surprisingly, some groups worked to find fault with his research, and he even described turning on the news to find a special on him and the flaws in his research. I asked him if it bothered him and, though he didn’t answer that question directly, he did tell a story about being invited to a meeting with a Stanford administrator at the height of all this. The administrator said, “They’re saying some pretty bad things about your research [pause]. Don’t let the bastards get you down.” I can only imagine that for an untenured professor who found himself somewhat unexpectedly in the public eye, that sort of support would go a long way toward giving him the courage to carry on. I also found myself wondering if that sort of thing would happen again today.
4. So does passion. Before we even entered the restaurant, he started telling us about his upcoming book. And it didn’t stop there. He talked us through almost every chapter- not just the content, but why he was interested in it and how he arrived at his conclusions. As he talked about his work, there was an excitement in his eyes unlike anything you would expect from someone who has been doing this for 50-plus years. He is genuinely passionate about this book. He is not doing it for the money (“the sales will take care of themselves,” he said.). He’s writing it to leave at least one more mark on the world he’s already influenced so greatly.
5. Take pictures. As I said before, most psychologists will tell you that there are three studies in Psychology that stand out as the most famous: The Milgram Obedience Experiments, The Stanford Prison Experiment, and Bandura’s initial Bobo Doll Study. Regan asked him why he thinks these three studies became so well known. He pointed to three things: (1) each had social implications. (2) each involved aggression and included findings that were surprising to people, and (3) each had photo and video evidence of their findings. We spent a lot of time on this last one and how, in a visual world like the one we live in, video/photo footage goes a long way toward helping ideas stand out to people. In fact, some of the other famous studies in psychology (Mischel’s Marshmallow Test, Asch’s Conformity Experiment, and Chabris and Simons Invisible Gorilla Study) all include video footage that helps drive the point home for students and the public at large.
Gun policy debate appears to be heating up across the country, prompting much discussion about the relationship between guns and violence. Unfortunately, such discussions are rarely data-driven and typically reflect sound bites of the “guns don’t kill people, people kill people” and the “more guns, more crime” variety.
To counter that, below are five facts about guns, anger, and violence.
Seeing a gun increases aggression. It may sound strange but researchers have known since a 1967 study by Berkowitz and LePage that the presence of a weapon increases aggression. It is an example of a psychological phenomenon referred to as priming whereby, because we associate weapons and violence (due to prior experience), seeing a weapon activates our aggression script. Priming occurs in a variety of contexts. In fact, it is a well known concept in advertising because certain stimuli encourage certain behaviors (e.g., just as seeing a weapon activates our aggression script, seeing food activates our eating script). The findings from the 1967 study have been replicated many times including a 1998 study by Anderson and colleagues that asked “does the gun pull the trigger” and found that “extant research suggests that it does” (p.313).
Holding a gun increases testosterone. The above findings on priming along with research suggesting that testosterone is associated with aggression in humans and animals prompted Klinesmith and colleagues (2005) to look at the relationship between guns, testosterone, and aggression. Remarkably, what they found was that when participants (all males) interacted with a gun for 15 minutes, their testosterone levels increased and they were more likely to engage in an aggressive act than those participants who interacted with a children’s toy. The authors state that, though their study is “far from definitive, its results suggest that guns may indeed increase aggressiveness partially via changes in the hormone testosterone” (p. 570).
Possessing a gun increases the chance of dying in a gun related assault. An often cited reason for owning a gun is the need for protection. Though this has received considerable attention in the literature on gun violence, the most recent and, arguably, the most thorough is a 2009 study by Branas and colleagues exploring the link “between being shot in an assault and possession of a gun at the time” (p. 2034). The authors found that those in possession of a gun were more than 4 times more likely to be shot in an assault than those not holding a gun. In those instances when the victim had the opportunity to fight back, those in possession of a gun were more than 5 times more likely to be shot. The authors conclude that “although successful defensive gun uses can and do occur, the findings of this study do not support the perception that such successes are likely” (p. 2037)
When people are angry, they are more likely to think a neutral object is a gun. A 2010 project explored the impact of our emotional state on threat detection. The researchers, Baumann and DeSteno, induced various emotions and asked participants to quickly identify whether or not an object was a gun. Across several tests, participants who were angry were more likely to misidentify a neutral object as a gun, suggesting that in an emotionally heated situation (like a potentially violent encounter), people are likely to error in the perception of the situation. Specifically, they are likely to assume the person they are in conflict with has a weapon when he or she does not.
The data on right-to-carry laws are inconclusive. Those in favor of concealed carry laws often point to a series of books by John Lott, including the 1998 book titled More Guns, Less Crime: Understanding Crime and Gun Control Laws (the third edition was published in 2010). His books argue that crime rates go down when states pass concealed carry laws. Lott’s explanation is that criminals are deterred from violence for fear of being shot by a legally armed citizen. Consequently, the more gun owners in a community, the less violent crime in that community. Not surprisingly, his books have been criticized by gun control advocates for a variety of reasons including using a limited sample, ignoring important variables, and ignoring data from other samples with contrary findings. Later editions of the book have sought to address these criticisms. However, in a 2004 review of the literature on gun violence, which included Lott’s data (found here), Wellford and colleagues conclude that “with the current evidence it is not possible to determine that there is a causal link between the passage of right-to-carry laws and crime rates” (p. 150). Likewise, they argue that “additional analysis along the lines of the current literature is unlikely to yield results that will persuasively demonstrate a causal link between right-to-carry laws and crime rates” (p. 151) and they call for different types of research on this question.
By Ryan C. Martin
We have been asked by some of our readers, as an addendum to a previous post on anger and politics, to write something about the tragic shooting in Arizona last week. While it feels premature to comment on the motivations of the shooter, it seems reasonable to write more about the anger and aggression so prevalent in American politics.
Much has already been made of the vitriolic language used by some candidates during this last election. While this election cycle did seem more aggressive than most, there may be a deeper problem when it comes to how we talk about politics in America. That is, our use of war as a metaphor for elections.
Think for a moment about any one of the last few presidential elections. In each case, the battle for the White House began with someone launching their campaign, traveling to battleground states to make their case and taking shots at their opponent. In return, their opponent fired back, blasting them for their positions. Back in the war rooms, their strategists plan to launch their next attack ad, targeting their opponent’s stances. This continues… the candidates are bashed, hit, or dealt a blow, districts are targeted, candidates take aim, they fight for endorsements, they gain and lose ground, they go on the offensive, they defend themselves from attacks until, eventually, the showdown comes to an end and one is defeated.
In fact, though most do not tend to think of it this way, even the word “campaign” has a military meaning: “A series of military operations undertaken to achieve a large-scale objective during a war” (American Heritage Dictionary, 2000). In other words, the war metaphor is so deeply engrained in how we think of politics that even the word most often used to describe the process is combat term. Such language is not meaningless. How we talk about something is a reflection of how we think of it.
There are other metaphors sometimes used to describe elections; the race metaphor or the debate metaphor. Might we be better off if we thought of elections less as aggressive conflict and more as “an extended competition in which participants struggle to be the winner” or “a discussion involving opposing points”? To approach things this way means that candidates take the lead instead of gaining ground, they score points instead of taking shots or dealing blows, and they push to the finish line instead of going on the offensive. While not perfect, these may reflect healthier perspectives.
Question: It seems there is so much anger over politics in the United States these days. Is there more than there used to be and, if so, why?
It’s hard to say if there is more anger than there used to be without any formal means of assessing such a thing. However, there probably is not more anger than there used to be, as much as the anger is more visible to people now. People can easily capture video examples of anger and aggression at campaign rallies and post those videos on the Internet for all to see. Likewise, weblogs, chain emails, and other sorts of discussion forums offer yet another venue for people to express their frustration. Consequently, exposure to this might make people feel as though there is more anger over politics than in the past.
As for why politics elicits so much anger from people, it happens for the same reason that people get angry about anything (see Anger Basics for a description of why and when people get angry). People may feel their personal or professional goals are being blocked, that their positions or opinions are being ignored or devalued, or that they can’t cope with the outcome. There are a couple of factors, though, that make anger over politics especially prevalent.
It’s well known that politicians tend to make exaggerated claims about their accomplishments or their opponent’s positions. Those claims are often designed with the explicit purpose of making people angry (e.g., “my opponent voted for the largest tax increase in history”, “my opponent wants to dismantle social security”). Thus, it isn’t surprising that those who believe the claims respond with frustration. Meanwhile, it’s likely that those who don’t believe them respond with anger over what they perceive as dishonesty.
Related to these exaggerated claims, voters seem to have a habit of only paying attention to the information that supports their perspective. They tend to believe the claims of the candidate they endorse and to perceive the claims of the other as being dishonest. They then look only for evidence that confirms their positions and ignore the data that refutes them. The Internet has made it all the easier to only pay attention to confirming evidence. If people believe a certain thing, they can usually find a website to validate their position. It’s also made the spread of these exaggerated claims even easier because anyone can post just about anything on the Internet or send it out via email without regard for truth or accuracy.
Ultimately, what this means is that people will dichotomize by lumping the candidates and their supporters into groups (e.g., completely right vs. completely wrong) and fail to understand how the other side of an issue may have some validity.
Feelings of Isolation
Another interesting aspect of politics is that people find out, in a way they don’t normally, how many other people in the city, state, or country agree or disagree with them. When one is on the losing side of an election, it’s easy to feel isolated (e.g., “I can’t believe there are so many people out there who don’t get it”). That feeling of isolation can spawn feelings of resentment and frustration.
Anger as Appropriate
Sometimes, what we perceive as an anger problem might be more of an impulse control/aggression problem. There is actually a place for healthy and productive anger in the political process. If we think of anger as a valuable tool in alerting us to problems and motivating us to confront those problems, it’s perfectly reasonable to get angry when elected officials and candidates act irresponsibly, endorse positions that may harm us, etc. The decisions that are made by elected officials affect many people in very real ways. Consequently, some are affected quite negatively and, potentially, unfairly by those decisions (e.g., decreased funding to certain programs, increased taxes) and an angry response might be both reasonable and healthy.
It is how one chooses to express that anger that matters most. At times, people can voice their anger in a positive way and use it to solve problems. There were many people this election cycle who were angry but didn’t throw things, push people, or become verbally abusive. Instead, their anger motivated them to register voters, hold rallies, or just to get out to vote. It’s when people lost control that we saw the more aggressive examples emerge and that is a far bigger problem than the anger.