Anxiety, Fear, and Political Decision Making
- Markus WagnerMarkus WagnerDepartment of Government, University of Vienna
- and Davide MorisiDavide MorisiDepartment of Political Science, Collegio Carlo Alberto
Research has shown emotions affect decision-making in ways that do not simply undermine rationality. Instead, in recent decades researchers have recognized that emotions also motivate and focus individuals and moderate how they make decisions. Initial research into emotions divided these simply into positive and negative, but this perspective has largely been displaced in political psychology by an emphasis on the impact of distinct emotions; among these, anxiety has received the most scholarly attention, rivaled only by anger. The causes of anxiety, also termed fear and unease, are diverse, but research highlights certain attributes of situational evaluation such as low self-control, low certainty, and low external agency.
Once present, anxiety has important consequences for decision-making. First, anxiety increases how much information individuals seek out, a pattern of behavior meant to reduce uncertainty. Second, anxiety decreases heuristic processing and weakens the reliance of underlying convictions in determining decisions. Instead, anxious individuals are more likely to think systematically about choices they face. Importantly, anxiety can affect choices and decisions even if they are not directly related to what caused anxiety to emerge, that is, if anxiety is incidental rather than integral.
In addition to influencing how people make decisions, anxiety may also directly influence the decisions individuals make. Thus, anxiety increases risk aversion, leading individuals to choose safer paths of action. Anxiety also makes individuals less likely to take action at all, with the most common response being withdrawal and passivity. Applied to political decision-making, anxiety may have the important consequence of decreasing political participation.
Research into the role of anxiety in decision-making is fast moving and vibrant, but to become fully established it needs to ensure rigor in measurement and research design; this will require considerable methodological research. Substantively, future research should focus on the effects of elite messages on anxiety as well as on how anxiety influences citizen attitudes and evaluations.