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Anxiety, Fear, and Political Decision Making  

Markus Wagner and Davide Morisi

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.


The Role of Analogies in Crisis Decision Making  

David Patrick Houghton

Analogical reasoning is a mode of thinking in which a current situation, person, or event is compared with something encountered in the past that appears “similar” to the analogizer. The 2020 Coronavirus crisis was often compared with the 1918 flu epidemic, for instance. In addition to reasoning across time, we can also reason across space, comparing a current case with something that has been encountered within a different geographical space. Sticking with the Coronavirus example, the management of the disease in one country was often compared with that in another, with favorable or unfavorable lessons being drawn. Analogical reasoning plays a major role in crisis decision-making, in large part because decisions made under such circumstances have to be taken in rapid (and, indeed, almost immediate) fashion. When this is the case, it is often tempting to conclude that “this time will resemble last time” or “this problem will resemble a situation confronted elsewhere.” But these analogies are drawn, and decisions are made, by individuals who must confront their own very human cognitive psychological limitations. Since analogies are essentially heuristic devices that cut short the process of informational search, they are usually seen as good enough but do not ensure optimal decision-making. Analogies are at a premium during crisis-like events, but their “bounded” nature means that their use will sometimes lead to errors in processing information. In particular, the drawing of an analogy often leads to an underestimation of ways in which the current crisis is “different” from the baseline event.


Social Media Lessons on the Nature of Political Decision Making  

Douglas R. Pierce

Traditional models of political decision making tend to focus on the subject’s information levels or information-processing strategy. One of the most common conceptions of political decision making assumes that voters who are informed by a store of factually accurate policy information make more optimal decisions—that is, decisions more in line with their supposed political interests—than those who lack such information. However, this traditional view of political decision making minimizes the roles of affect and social influence on judgment. No phenomenon underscores the primary place of these constructs more so than the meteoric rise of online social media use. Indeed, scholars working at the intersection of social media use and political judgment have made important revisions to the traditional model of political decision making. Specifically, the popularity of online social networks as a tool for exchanging information, connecting with others, and displaying affective reactions to stimuli suggest that new models of competent political decision making which take into account social, affective, and cognitive elements are replacing older, information-based and rational choice models. In this essay, I review some of the pertinent literature on social media use and decision-making and argue that motivation, emotion, and social networks are key components of political judgment and are in fact more relevant to understanding political decisions than political knowledge or political sophistication. I also propose that new models of political decision-making would do well to take into account automaticity, social approval, and the role of information in both rationalizing preferences and persuading others.


A Constructivist Approach to Online Political Information Processing  

Dan Cassino

Online processing, and the models arising from it, starts with an optimistic view of the American voter, in which it is supposed that the seeming ignorance of voters does not prevent them from expressing rational attitudes about the very political objects they do not know much about. This means that the seeming ignorance of voters is not necessarily a threat to electoral democracy, but the cognitive structures needed for this sort of rationality also lead to necessary, and sometimes extreme, biases in political information processing. Since information stored in long-term memory is linked, both semantically and affectively (that is, based on the perceived positive or negative valence of the information), affect—understood here as a simple positive or negative valence—colors all steps of information processing. For instance, individuals are likely to avoid, or counter-argue, or simply reject information that is at odds with their existing views. As a result, individuals of different political persuasions may have difficulty coming to agreement on the correct interpretation of relevant facts, or even the facts themselves. Alternative memory-based models, which propose that evaluations are constructed on the spot when a question is asked, may help to explain response instability, but fail to serve as complete replacements for the online processing approach. The bias caused by affect-infused cognition seems to present challenges for electoral democracy just as much as the seeming ignorance it accounts for, but it is argued that such biases are mostly limited to individuals who already hold fairly strong existing attitudes, a group which is unlikely to include most voters. Moreover, some degree of intransigence is likely a good thing, as the alternative is views that shift rapidly with new information.


Affective Intelligence and Emotional Dynamics in Voters’ Decision-Making Processes  

Pavlos Vasilopoulos

Affective intelligence theory offers a novel and systematic treatment on the impact of affective reactions on citizens’ information processes and political decisions based on neuroscience. Individuals have two distinct emotional systems that lead to two separate decision-making strategies. On the one hand, the disposition system, governed by enthusiasm and aversion, leads people to rely on habit or their sets of previously learned behaviors. On the other, the surveillance system is activated in novel or threating circumstances and is governed by anxiety. Once activated, anxiety leads individuals to seek for political information, break away from habitual political identifications, and consequently renders them more open to persuasion.


Automaticity in Political Decision Making  

Efrén Pérez and Isaac Riddle

Rather than being a slow, deliberative, and fully conscious process, political thinking is steeped in automaticity: that is, it is fast, relatively effortless, and often unconscious. Political and social psychologists have made great strides in measuring different components of this automaticity while pinpointing its influence on different types of citizens under a variety of social and political circumstances. There are manifold ways through which automaticity seeps into political cognition by focusing on various important domains of political decision-making, including intergroup relations, identity and information processing, and candidate evaluation. Multiple research frontiers in political science exist where automaticity can help break new conceptual and theoretical ground as it relates to people’s thinking, judgment, and evaluation of politics.