Affective Intelligence and Emotional Dynamics in Voters’ Decision-Making Processes
Affective Intelligence and Emotional Dynamics in Voters’ Decision-Making Processes
- Pavlos VasilopoulosPavlos VasilopoulosDepartment of Politics, University of York
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.
- Political Psychology
Emotions are frequently described as mysterious, turbulent states that intrude the mind and obstruct rational thinking by rendering individuals unpredictable, impulsive, and destructive toward others or themselves. Under this view, which still remains popular among pundits and scholars, emotional reactions ought to have no place in citizens’ political decision-making processes, as politics is a domain that needs to be guided by rationality, deliberation, and sensibility. When emotions do enter politics, the conventional narrative goes, they deteriorate democratic processes, paving the way to populism and demagoguery. For example, the rise of Trump in the United States or the Brexit in the United Kingdom are commonly attributed to the extensive anxiety, fear, and anger experienced by a low-educated, rural populace due to increased immigration or rising inequality.
At the same time, the study of emotions was, by and large, neglected by political science. Research on voters’ affective reactions was largely left out of the rapid development in the study of political behavior that took place with the introduction of quantitative surveys in the mid-20th century, as emotions were considered mysterious, volatile, and difficult to conceptualize and measure (Marcus, 2013). Despite this broad consensus, some early studies in political psychology acknowledged the role emotions played in political socialization and culture. For example, in their seminal work The Authoritarian Personality (1950), Adorno, Frenkel-Brunswik, Levinson, and Sanford conceptualized and analyzed authoritarians on the basis of the simultaneous experience of fear and hatred evoked by their unsatisfied psychological needs that resulted in aggressive and submissive impulses that were transferred into the political realm.
Gradually in the 1980s and early 1990s political behaviorists started integrating measures of affective reactions in the study of political attitudes and electoral behavior. During this early stage, the field was dominated by the so-called approach/avoidance perspective. This is a valence taxonomy of emotional reactions as either pleasant (and rewarding) or unpleasant (and harmful). According to these theories, in cases when one experiences a positive emotion, he or she would be more likely to approach the affective target, while in cases where one experienced the opposite, he or she would be more likely to avoid it. For example, some studies argued that affective reactions navigated voters in the sphere of politics, often functioning as a heuristic that simplified political decision-making processes allowing voters who lack extended reservoirs of political knowledge to decide on political issues. One such construct is the “likability heuristic” introduced by Sniderman and his colleagues (Brady & Sniderman, 1985; Sniderman, 2000; Sniderman, Brody, & Tetlock, 1993). This stream of research argued that while most voters may have trouble thinking about politics in ideological terms, they may nonetheless estimate the positions of liberals and conservatives by relying on their positive or negative evaluations of these groups. By matching liked policies with one’s own ideological group and disliked policies with the ideological outgroup, the argument goes, citizens are able to predict, by and large, where liberals and conservatives stand on a number of issues on which they may lack political information.
Another example of the approach/avoidance perspective concerns the concept of the “public mood” defined as a “diffuse affective state, having distinct positive and negative components, that citizens experience because of their membership in a particular political community” (Rahn, Kroeger, & Kite, 1996, p. 31; see also Rahn, 2000). Apart from experiencing emotions in their personal realm due to individual life events, citizens may find themselves in a positive or negative emotional state depending on external circumstances operating at the societal level. Even though sometimes the sources behind the formation of these emotional reactions may have been forgotten or lie outside conscious awareness, these public moods serve as heuristic devices that allow voters to decide on complex political issues or topics they lack knowledge on. This is achieved by simply relying on their (positive or negative) emotions to make emotionally congruent (positive or negative) political judgments (Rahn et al., 1996; Rahn, 2000).
Perhaps the most known and influential approach/avoidance model of decision making is the “online” model developed by Milton Lodge and his colleagues (Lodge, McGraw, & Stroh, 1989; Lodge, Steenbergen, & Brau, 1995; Lodge & Taber, 2005; Redlawsk, 2001). The model rests on the “hot cognition” hypothesis, which posits that all political objects including leaders, parties, policies, and social groups are emotionally charged: when citizens encounter any of these objects for the first time they develop an affective first impression, that is, a summary judgment based on this initial encounter that is then stored in long-term memory. The information that led to the affective impression may be forgotten with time. What remains instead is an “affective tag” (like or dislike) that affects subsequent political evaluations (Fiske & Taylor, 2013).
The turning point in the incorporation of emotion in political science and behavior was the dialogue between political science and neuroscience that started in the mid-1980s. The most pertinent product of this cross-disciplinary influence was the affective intelligence theory (AIT) developed gradually by George E. Marcus with Michael MacKuen and Russell Neuman (Marcus, 1988, 1991, 2002; Marcus & MacKuen, 1993; Marcus, MacKuen, & Neuman, 2011; Marcus, Neuman, & MacKuen, 2000, 2017; MacKuen, Wolak, Keele, & Marcus, 2010). Drawing on neuroscience, AIT moved things forward by making three innovative claims on the interplay of emotions with citizens’ political decisions.
First, AIT rejected the reason–passion dichotomy that was prominent in political science. By integrating findings from neuroscience (such as the seminal Damasio card experiment; Bechara, Damasio, Damasio, & Anderson, 1994), the theory introduced in political science the idea that emotional reactions are preconscious, that is, they precede conscious reasoning rather than being formed on the basis of it. Therefore, emotions are an inescapable aspect of the totality of human behavior, including political behavior. Second, the theory made for the first time a distinction between negative emotions, arguing that anxiety and aversion are parts of different decision-making systems and have contrasting effects on political behavior. Third, the theory argued and validated empirically that anxiety, rather than rendering citizens irrational, actually enhances information-seeking processes and makes individuals more deliberative, more attentive to political campaigns, and more accepting of arguments coming from ideologically divergent sources.
The Theory of Affective Intelligence
The theory of affective intelligence (Mackuen et al., 2007; Marcus et al., 2000, 2011) finds its roots in neuroscience. It posits that people hold two distinct emotional systems, corresponding to two separate decision-making strategies. The first system, called the disposition system, guides habitual behaviors carried out without people consciously considering them: when in recurring or familiar circumstances, people rely on habit or their sets of previously learned behaviors to guide their behavior without much scrutiny, thus being able to economize in terms of time and effort. A typical example of the disposition system is party identification as a heuristic device (Marcus et al., 2000, 2007, 2011): in a state of tranquility, citizens tend to navigate themselves and form attitudes or vote choices based on their past assessments, without actively seeking political information in order to reach a political decision. However, sometimes people find themselves in threatening or unfamiliar situations and their expectations are challenged by novel information or stimuli. In these cases, the second system, called the surveillance system, may be activated. The surveillance system’s main function is to drive attention to unfamiliar stimuli. In these situations, relying on habit is no longer an effective strategy and a different reasoning, based on active decision-making strategies, is required to deal with the perceived threat. The surveillance system brings conscious awareness into action, enhancing attentiveness and learning processes, and turning citizens from low-information rationalists to aware and mobilized voters deciding based on the important issues of the day. To sum up, AIT posits that when people find themselves in novel or threatening conditions, they stop relying on habitual attachments and actively attend to contemporary assessments about their environment such as policy issues or candidate personal characteristics.
Affective intelligence posits that emotions precede conscious reasoning, that is, “emotional evaluations of and reactions to symbols, people, groups, and events, are generated before conscious awareness” (Marcus et al., 2000, p. 28). Further, it breaks away from the so-called cognitive appraisal perspective in psychology that sees each emotion as a discrete somatic manifestation of an appraisal on one’s extant state and argues for a clear distinction of each affective state (e.g., Lazarus, 1991). Drawing on findings from neuroscience, AIT conceptualizes affect as dimensional. This means that different emotions represent degrees of a limited number of emotional dimensions. For example, AIT sees the emotions of uneasiness, nervousness, worry, anxiety, fear, scare, and panic as degrees of the dimensional scale of anxiety, whereas cognitive appraisal theories would see most of these emotional states as separated affective reactions based on discrete appraisals over one’s situation. Initially Marcus and Mackuen (1993) saw a wide array of emotional reactions stemming from two omnipresent preconscious appraisals. The first, termed enthusiasm, is primarily evoked by a rewarding feedback on the success of habituated tasks. The second, termed anxiety, is triggered in unfamiliar or novel circumstances. In subsequent refinements of the theory the authors added aversion as a third ubiquitous emotional dimension that is evoked by familiar threats that violate cherished norms (Marcus, 2002; Marcus et al., 2000, 2011). The dimensional conceptualization of emotional responses allows for the concurrent experience of more than one emotion. For example, Neuman et al. (2018) measured emotional responses to a broad number of news stories that ranged in content and found that the each story elicited affective appraisals, that is, appraisals of enthusiasm, anxiety, and aversion, though the appraisal varied according to the topics and content (see also Marcus et al., 2017).
On the one hand, the disposition system is governed by the emotions of enthusiasm and aversion. On the other, the key variable that signifies the transition from the dispositional to the surveillance system and vice versa is anxiety, which helps us identify unfamiliar or threatening circumstances (Marcus et al., 2000). In the world of politics, novel or threatening situations, such as economic recessions, terror attacks, natural disasters, or even unfamiliar candidates, are likely to elevate feelings of anxiety, which in turn lead citizens to stop relying on habit and focus more on conscious reasoning and contemporary assessments, thus resembling the ideal type of the rational voter (Downs, 1957) rather than the voter who relies on information shortcuts without understanding the context of the issues for herself (Lupia, 1994; Popkin, 1991).
Marcus et al. (2000, 2007, 2011) have repeatedly demonstrated that feeling anxious about one’s candidate makes voters more likely to vote against their party or ideological identification and, instead, to focus on contemporary policy issues and candidates. Yet, these findings have not remained unchallenged. Ladd and Lenz (2008, 2011) have criticized AIT by proposing two alternative mechanisms on how anxiety drives political behavior. Both criticisms focus on the original measurement of anxiety employed by Marcus et al. (2000), which is anxiety toward a particular candidate.1
The first alternative proposed by Ladd and Lenz (2008, 2011) is that positive or negative emotions toward particular candidates directly trigger positive or negative evaluations of these candidates (“affect transfer”). Hence, the argument goes, the finding by Marcus et al. (2000) that anxious citizens tend to vote against their party identification could be a product of lower candidate evaluations among some partisans, rather than the causal effect of anxiety. More notably, Ladd and Lenz (2008, p. 277) propose a second alternative on anxiety and voting by criticizing AIT on the grounds of endogeneity (“endogenous affect”). They argue that it is the candidate evaluations that generate emotions such as anxiety or enthusiasm rather than the reverse: if a candidate triggers negative emotions in a voter, it is reasonable to expect that the voter becomes less likely to vote for her. Hence, their second criticism is that the empirical illustration of AIT is likely a product of reverse causation, where emotional reactions are mere rationalizations of evaluations rather than exerting a causal impact on political decision making.2
On their part, Lavine, Johnston, and Steenbergen (2012) offer an alternative mechanism on the breakaway from longstanding party attachments and the reconsideration of prior political choices that does not necessarily include anxiety. They contend that some party identifiers become ambivalent toward their parties when they perceive a divergence between the party image and party performance. These ambivalent partisans tend to rely less on their partisan attachments and more on their political values. Consequently, according to Lavine et al. (2012, p. 173), “anxiety may be a sufficient condition (if it is experienced as dissonant with one’s partisan identity) but it is not necessary to instigate careful thinking.”
In the light of these criticisms, a broad stream of research has tested the premises of AIT in different contexts and by using different methodologies, providing additional evidence on the validity of the theory. A number of scholars have investigated the effect of anxiety enthusiasm, and anger, on voters’ information-seeking processes. In a study carried out in the aftermath of the U.S. terrorist attacks on 9/11, Huddy, Feldman, Taber, and Lahav (2005) found that having experienced anxiety over the attacks was positively associated with an increased tendency to follow the news, yet negatively associated with knowledge of the attacks and the perpetrators. In an experimental setting, Redlawsk, Civettini, and Lau (2007) found that anxiety enhanced while anger suppressed the search for political information, especially in a high threat environment. Valentino et al. (2008) conducted a series of experiments on affect and information processing by inducing emotions in participants. Their results illustrated that anxiety had a strong, positive impact on participants’ motivation to gather political information. On the one hand, anxiety increased the quantity of information read as well as respondents’ retention of the material they encountered. On the other, while anger and enthusiasm also increased the motivation to seek political information, anger was negatively associated and enthusiasm not associated at all with actual information seeking. Moreover, neither of these emotions was associated with remembering the information subjects encountered.
These findings were extended by MacKuen et al. (2010). They used an online experiment to assess the influence of enthusiasm, fear, and aversion on information seeking and also on the extent to which subjects were willing to be exposed to material that challenged their partisan views. They found that anxiety, on the one hand, was significantly associated with exploring information that opposes one’s extant policy views and in turn favors compromising rather than absolute solutions. On the other, aversion was negatively associated with information search, exposure to incongruent political arguments, and support for compromising solutions. In contrast, anger suppressed both information-seeking effects and the willingness to be exposed to disagreeing arguments. Further, by exposing respondents to threatening stories about immigration, Albertson and Gadarian (2015) investigated the extent to which anxiety motivates people to seek out specific types of information. Their study showed that anxious individuals mainly sought out, were more likely to remember, and also agree with threatening information.
In an experimental setting, Groenendyk (2016) investigated whether anxiety and enthusiasm differentially affected participants’ evaluation criteria for Barack Obama. He illustrated that anxiety resulted in the recall of contemporary considerations (such as job performance), while enthusiasm triggered the recall of more long-standing, chronic considerations (such as personality). Groenendyk’s (2016) findings provide additional confirmation of the causal role of anxiety on the processing of political information. The effects of anxiety on information seeking have also been reported in a variety of settings outside of the United States. By manipulating emotional reactions through exposure to news stories of a terrorist threat in Turkey, Erisen (2018) found that anxiety spurred interest in receiving new information among respondents with low political efficacy. Similarly, drawing on panel data collected before and after the January 2015 Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris, Vasilopoulos et al. (2018) found that the experience of anxiety in the light of the attacks changed news exposure habits, motivating citizens to follow the news more often. However, both studies report that anger was unassociated with information seeking.
Other research programs have focused on the impact of anxiety and anger on the biased processing of political information in line with one’s political dispositions. Redlawsk, Civettini, and Emmerson (2010) investigated whether anxiety affects motivated reasoning processes, a well-known psychological bias that motivates individuals to process information in a way that upholds their preexisting political conclusions (see Erisen, Lodge, & Taber, 2014; Redlawsk, 2002; Strickland, Taber, & Lodge, 2011; Taber & Lodge, 2006). They find that while a small amount of negative information toward one’s favored candidate triggers motivated reasoning processes, thus boosting positive evaluations of the candidate, anxiety disrupts this pattern, making voters more negative toward their own candidate. Suhay and Erisen (2018) further advanced research on the affective apparatus driving motivated-reasoning processes, illustrating that anger boosts the biased assimilation of political information in a way that reinforces one’s prior political beliefs. These works offer additional support for the properties of the surveillance and disposition systems as described by Marcus et al. (2000).
Another stream of research has tested the AIT claims by investigating how emotional reactions impact upon the vote. Using an experimental setting, Brader (2005, 2006) tested the extent to which emotional appeals in political advertisements impact upon voters’ decisional calculi. The results suggested that fear primes in political ads increased participants’ reliance on candidates’ personal traits and campaign issues, while enthusiasm primes increased the impact of voters’ pre-established convictions on the vote. Three studies provide additional evidence on the discrete roles of anxiety and anger on voting behavior. Valentino et al. (2018) investigated the psychological profile of Trump voters, finding that hostile sexism (Glick & Fiske, 1996) was a psychological characteristic that strongly boosted the propensity to vote for Trump. At the same time, however, they also found that fear reduced the impact of sexist attitudes on the Trump vote, while anger powerfully mobilized sexist voters to turn out and vote for the Republican candidate.
In separate studies on the effects of anger and fear on voting for the far right in France in a number of elections, both Vasilopoulos et al. (2019) and Marcus et al. (2019) found that anger galvanized support for the French far right National Front party among those with an authoritarian or conservative disposition, while fear rendered the same groups of voters less likely to rely on the same dispositions. These findings are in line with the basic AIT claims, that fear decreases while anger increases reliance on extant political convictions in voting behavior.
In sum, the extant literature provides a wealth of evidence that confirms the AIT claims regarding the role of anxiety, anger, and enthusiasm on information processing, the activation of the surveillance and disposition systems under different affective states, as well as the behavioral impact of emotional reactions on political behavior. More importantly perhaps, by employing an experimental method a portion of this research illustrates that affective reactions have a causal impact on political behavior, rather than being mere epiphenomena of political decisions.
Applications in Public Opinion Research
Affective intelligence theory can be applied in the understanding of attitude formation and change on two significant global challenges of the 21st century: terrorism and global warming. Both issues are particularly salient in global public opinion. According to a Pew study covering 38 countries, ISIS and climate change were considered the most important threats for respondents’ countries.3 As is the case with any type of threat, both issues trigger strong negative emotional reactions, predominantly anger and fear (Lerner, Gonzalez, Small, & Fischhoff, 2003; Vasilopoulos et al., 2018, 2019). How can AIT inform us on attitude formation and change on these issues?
A large number of studies have shown that terror attacks have a profound impact on public opinion. Following a terrorist incident, public opinion becomes less tolerant toward out-groups and more supportive of the restriction of civil liberties and of belligerent and aggressive policy options (Brouard, Vasilopoulos, & Foucault, 2018; Hetherington & Suhay, 2011; Huddy et al., 2005; Lerner et al., 2003; Skitka et al., 2004). These findings are in line with a large stream of research that shows that following threatening events, mass publics become more prone to endorsing authoritarian policies and leaders (Doty, Peterson, & Winter, 1991; McCann, 1997; Feldman & Stenner, 1997).
At the same time, terrorist events evoke strong emotional reactions, particularly fear and anger (Albertson & Gadarian, 2015; Lerner et al., 2003; Vasilopoulos, 2018; Vasilopoulos et al., 2018, 2019). For example, in the light of the November 13, 2015, Paris attacks the average levels of fear experienced by the French public on a scale with a minimum of 0 and a maximum of 1 was 0.71. The level of anger on a similar scale was 0.69 (see Vasilopoulos et al., 2019). How can AIT inform us over the authoritarian drift in the light of terror attacks?
Based on the AIT framework, anxiety triggered by a terror attack should activate the surveillance system. That is, anxiety should make citizens more attentive to new information, more reliant on this information, and in turn more open to persuasion to the direction of the momentary context. In the light of terror attacks, elites typically respond in unity so as to confront the collective threat. This was the case in 9/11 where George W. Bush’s plan for a military intervention in Afghanistan met little elite resistance (see Albertson & Gadarian, 2015). Similarly, in the aftermath of the January and November 2015 Paris attacks, the government moved on to restraining a number of civil liberties without much resistance from elites or civil society organizations. Consequently, affective intelligence can describe the psychological mechanism that transforms public attitudes in the light of a terror attack to a conservative or authoritarian direction even among those who would normally oppose these policy options.
Using an experimental setting Albertson and Gadarian (2015) investigated the effect of anxiety evoked by threatening stories regarding terrorism. They found that anxious Democrats were more likely to endorse policies that contravene their party affiliation on the endorsement of a number of protective policies of a conservative or hawkish nature such as the increase in spending on defense and homeland security, the support of the Iraq War, and the restriction of civil liberties. Hence, in line with AIT, these results indicate that anxiety leads individuals to reconsider their extant convictions and end supporting policies that they are disposed to oppose.
Vasilopoulos et al. (2018) tested the claims of AIT using panel data collected shortly before and after the 2015 Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris. They measured the impact of emotional reactions stemming from the attacks on political attitudes on a series of authoritarian policy proposals. Similarly to Garadian and Albertson (2015), they found that, on the one hand, feeling anxious over the attacks made non-authoritarian respondents endorse authoritarian policies. Yet anxiety had no effect among respondents who had an authoritarian disposition. On the other, experiencing anger in reaction to the same event boosted the endorsement of the same policies among those who already had an authoritarian disposition, while it had no effect among respondents with low levels of dispositional authoritarianism. These findings illustrate the different behavioral impact of the two affective systems described by AIT, informing us of the psychological motivation of citizens to update their prior preferences in response to anxiety and strengthen them in response to anger.
As for climate change, emotionally charged messages are prominent in environmental groups’ rhetoric and communication strategy. Depending on the audience they address, research has shown that several interest groups try to spur both enthusiasm in order to galvanize support for a collective effort on climate change and anxiety in order to motivate learning about the issue (Merry, 2010). Several studies have illustrated that, in line with AIT, anxiety-inducing messages on climate change and the environment lead to an increase of information seeking on the topic, support for governmental action against global warming, as well as willingness to sacrifice part of one’s resources to tackle the problem (Bilandzic, Kalch, & Soentgen, 2017; Hart & Leiserowitz, 2009; Smith & Leiserowitz, 2014).
Others have found that anxiety is also associated with attitude change over the issue of global warming. In an interesting experiment Nai, Schemeil, and Marie (2017) studied opinion shifts on the issue of climate change. They provided respondents with substantial factual information about global warming, asking them subsequently the extent to which this information made them feel anxious. Their results suggested that anxious respondents were more likely to change their initial opinion toward climate change in the light of this persuasive information compared to respondents who did not experience elevated anxiety. Interestingly, this effect was augmented among participants scoring high in political sophistication. In a similar study Albertson and Gadarian (2015) found that anxiety over climate change reduced attitude polarization on the topic, making Republican voters more likely to support a number of Democratic policies, including the United States signing international treaties aiming at the protection of the environment, the increase of research funding for renewable energy, as well the regulation of carbon dioxide.
Conclusion and Future Directions
The theory of affective intelligence has a number of important implications for understanding voters’ attention to current events as well as political involvement and mobilization. A number of studies on political knowledge since the 1960s have repeatedly shown that political knowledge levels in mass publics are low (Campbell et al., 1980; Converse, 1964; Delli Carpini & Keeter, 1997). In turn, this lack of political sophistication has been shown to hinder political participation and the expression of voters’ self-interests and value dispositions in the political arena (Andersen, Tilley, & Heath, 2005; Bartels, 1996, 2005; Delli Carpini & Keeter, 1997; Luskin, 1987, 1990; Popkin & Dimock, 1999; Zaller, 1992). The realization of the importance of political knowledge for effective political representation has generated much research on its antecedents. Hence several studies have found a number of long-term demographic and psychological characteristics that are associated with political knowledge (Delli Carpini & Keeter, 1997; Luskin, 1990).
AIT describes the electorate in different terms. It challenges the conclusion according to which voters are either politically sophisticated or unsophisticated, arguing that many voters change back and forth between these two alternative models of citizenship based on the momentary context. During calm times, a large number of citizens will pay little attention to political affairs and rather economize on time and effort by navigating themselves in the realm of politics based on extant convictions. In times of crisis, however, when anxiety is produced, the politically unsophisticated will be motivated to gather political information, make political judgments, and participate in politics based on this information, even if this means breaking away from chronic political preferences or going against their own psychological dispositions such as authoritarianism or ethnocentrism. In this sense, the theory has far-reaching implications for better understanding the conditional nature of vote decision criteria. AIT makes specific claims on the extent to which citizens will tend to rely on their partisan or ideological attachments during an election or—on the contrary—will tend to rapidly adjust their political preferences to the direction of the momentary context. For instance, in several European countries such as France, Spain, Greece, or Italy, the 2008 economic crisis caused the breaking of long-lasting voter allegiances, and party systems that were stable for decades were transformed in the time span of a few years or even months. Traditional political science tools that explain voting behavior on the basis of long-term habitual anchors such as ideological or partisan identities fall short of explaining such rapid transformations in political systems. Understanding the conditional influence of important dispositions on political behavior can help political scientists build more precise and robust behavioral models.
At the same time, AIT can help to understand the changes in information seeking and processing that are currently taking place among many advanced democracies. For instance, the tendency of many voters to yield to post-factual (or post-truth) messages is fully in line with the theory’s hypothesized role of anger on information processing. At the same time a number of research programs have argued that emotions not only impact upon the extent to which citizens collect information, process it, and change their prior judgments on the basis of this information, but also directly render some political options more appealing than others. For instance, scholarship has recently identified a positive association between anger and the endorsement of risky, punitive, and aggressive political choices such as voting for the far right (Vasilopoulos et al., 2019), or supporting risky political choices that include the withdrawal from international organizations such as the European Union (Vasilopoulou & Wagner, 2017) or other aggressive foreign policy options (Huddy, Feldman, & Cassese, 2007; see also Erisen, 2018). These studies do not lie in tension with the AIT premises, yet they point to the conclusion that emotions may have a more expanded impact on political behavior than the one conceived by AIT. Combining the insights of AIT on information processing with evidence on the effect of emotions on political action could significantly advance extant understanding on a series of challenges that many democracies face today, including the rise of authoritarian populism, the increased demand for isolationist policies, and the rise of new protest movements both from the left and right.
The behavioral effects predicted by AIT have been well documented in different contexts on a series of political decision-making processes such as information processing, opinion change, participation, and voting criteria. One additional direction for future research concerns individual-level differences both in emotional experience and the degree of emotional arousal. This especially concerns negative emotions. Why do some people react to the same stimulus with fear while others react with anger? While both AIT and other theories of emotions describe the appraisals leading to experiencing one over the other, the individual or aggregate-level factors influencing affective evocation and levels of arousal have received much less attention. For example, as mentioned earlier AIT predicts the activation of the surveillance system based on the familiarity with the emotional target. If the threatening stimulus is familiar and violates cherished norms, individuals are more likely to experience heightened anger. If the stimulus is unfamiliar then one is more likely to respond predominantly with anxiety. These insights are particularly useful for understanding the formation of emotions and predicting whether a specific event will trigger more anxiety than anger. What is far less clear, however, are the psychological characteristics that lead some individuals to respond with elevated anxiety compared to anger, others with increased anger compared to anxiety, another group to experience both at the same time, and yet others to experience neither. Uncovering this mechanism will contribute to the development of a full understanding of the relationship between a threatening event, the experience of emotions, and the behavioral impact of these emotions.
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1. The item used in the American national election study typically has the following form (Ladd & Lenz, 2008; Marcus & MacKuen, 1993): “I am going to name a political figure, and I want you to tell me whether that person, or something he has done has made you have certain feelings like ‘anger’ or ‘pride,’ or others I will mention. Think about Ronald Reagan. Now, has Reagan—because of the kind of person he is, or because of something he has done—ever made you feel: afraid of him?”
2. This criticism raised a vivid academic exchange not only on AIT, but also on the broader influence of affect in political decision making (see Brader, 2011; Ladd & Lenz, 2011; Marcus et al., 2011).
3. The study was conducted from February 2017 to May 2017. It is available on the Pew Research Center website.