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date: 18 February 2020

Anger in Political Decision Making

Summary and Keywords

One of the most frequently evoked emotions on a daily basis is anger. Regardless of time and context, anger is a central emotion of action and motivation. Closely related with a number of high arousal negative emotions, such as hatred, disgust, feelings of revenge, and contempt, anger stands out among all with its neural and appraisal foundations and attitudinal and behavioral consequences. More importantly, anger differs from anxiety in essential aspects that place the two emotions in different dimensions. So far, various studies have demonstrated the potential consequences of anger (and its distinct nature from anxiety) across an array of domains including risk assessments, policy preferences, information processing and motivated biases, political participation, social media engagement, group relations and ethnocentrism, intractable conflicts and conflict resolution, and vote behavior. Some others have treated anger as a mediator or a moderator between prior attitudes and beliefs, with evidence on how it could alter primary associations. It is thus relevant to begin with the overview of the theoretical debates and matters of conceptualization, followed by a discussion of how anger differs from anxiety. In pursuit of these foundations, contemporary research tackles the domains where anger plays a critical role in exploration of early 21st-century phenomena such as the populist surge, growing polarization, and disconnected networks across distinct contexts.

Keywords: anger, anxiety, hatred, disgust, revenge, contempt, motivation, populism, polarization, political decision making

Introduction

Growing polarization across several countries in the first quarter of the 21st century owes much to increased anger. Although most would assume that anger between groups stems from ideological differences, others suggest otherwise—in line with the identity-driven tribalism approach (e.g., Achen & Bartels, 2016). From whichever perspective one approaches the study of an emotion such as anger, it is quite possible to run into the issue of explaining its antecedents and consequences in line with the contextual effects of growing populism. Populist leaders and parties have all used the motivating power of anger in a polarized world of in-group versus out-group (Hetherington & Weiler, 2018). Following the same debate, this article explores the definitional, theoretical, and empirical foundations and effects of anger in connection with related emotions.

What is interesting about contemporary research on anger is that it offers only limited explanations regarding the sources of anger in comparison to its effects. Most research has focused on anger’s potential consequences, an emotion that alters attitudes, behaviors, and judgments. Others have treated anger as a mediating or a moderating emotion, and only a few have focused on the sources of anger. In line with the composition of the contemporary literature, this article explores several aspects of the issue while giving emphasis to the missing pieces in the literature with reflections on the democratic deficiencies currently faced in both developing and developed countries.

The article first begins with the “Theoretical Definitions of Anger,” from different perspectives, to reflect the multitude of approaches over time. Next comes the discussion on “Conceptualizing Anger and Related Emotions” and how anger stands out in the list of negative emotions, most particularly how different it is from anxiety (“Distinguishing Anger From Fear”). In pursuit of that theoretical differentiation are the attitudinal and behavioral outcomes in “Differentiating Anger From Fear Regarding Threat Perception and Risk Involvement.” At the next stage, the article discusses “Anger and Its General Effects” and then, in particular, anger across an array of domains, including “Anger and Its Effects on Information Processing,” “Anger and Its Effects on Group Relations and Ethnocentrism,” “Anger and Its Effects on Social Mobilization and Participation,” and “Anger and the Populist Attitudes and Vote Choice.” The article continues with “Reflections of Anger on Democratic Politics,” then reviews relations between “Anger and Its Cousins: Its Relationship to Hatred, Revenge, Disgust, and Contempt,” before ending with the “Conclusion.”

Theoretical Definitions of Anger

Philosophers, psychologists, political scientists, and biologists all have their own approaches to the study of emotions and their focus on anger. Each strand stems from a unique perspective with definitions that are both foundational and interdisciplinary so as to encompass the extent of this emotion. Each of these distinct approaches to the definition of anger is discussed here.

Earlier thinkers, particularly, discussed the foundations of cognition and emotion. The essential view of philosophers on anger was that it is an affective response to the perception that something one values has been wronged or harmed. Among these, Aristotle is probably the first thinker who explored passions regarding how an orator can evoke various psychological states in the audience. In the long inclusive list of emotions, anger stands out as the one that, as Elster (1999) describes Aristotle’s discussion of emotions in The Rhetoric, “is said to be triggered by an undeserved slight or belittling, and in turn to trigger the desire for revenge.” In Aristotle’s definition, anger is accurately captured by the term “wrath.”

To Elster, mere frustration of desire, without intent to slight, can also trigger anger (Elster, 1999, pp. 62–63). Following the same logic, anger may be a simple reflection of the frustration–aggression hypothesis, namely, when people face a frustration that blocks them from reaching a goal, that could directly or indirectly affect their well-being. For example, a student is involved in an accident while rushing to class to attend an exam. The student may then get frustrated not only because of the accident, but also because it will make her miss the exam. Thus, she will get angry as a function of goal frustration.

Whereas this is a direct, unconstrained definition of anger, other definitions take into account additional important values. One refers to morality, which primarily relates to the perception of violation of norms. To Ortony, Clore, and Collins (1988), anger is a function of blameworthy actions that cause undesirable outcomes. These situations include events where people tend to get angry because of moral failure or violation of moral norms.

Marcus, Neuman, and MacKuen (2000) and MacKuen, Wolak, Keele, and Marcus (2010) follow the same approach, positioning anger as one of the foundations of morality. Strongly correlated with frustration, contempt, disgust, bitterness, resentment, and hatred, anger loads on to the dimension of approach rather than withdrawal emotions. For these authors, the emotions associated with anger fall within the dimension of aversion, which is part of the disposition system. When faced with familiar but disliked or threatening stimuli, the disposition system initiates anger. This conceptualization of anger relies substantially on violations of normative beliefs and attitudes. The stronger the violation of beliefs and normative truths, the more intense the reactions to the cause of that violation become.

Similarly, in the study of criminal justice opinions, Petersen (2010) reports that anger is not a simple negative emotion that triggers processing of hazards, such as terrorist attacks, influxes of refugees and immigrants, or environmental disasters. Rather, it is an emotion driven by evolutionary foundations within the domain of morality and rule violations. From this perspective, anger appears to be an emotion within the moral domain.

Following the same strand of reasoning, Brady et al. (2018) show that there is a robust connection between moral values and emotions, most especially anger, hatred, and disgust. Across an array of studies, they show that when emotions are connected to moral foundations, the tendency of moral contagion and the propensity to share in online platforms is significant. Thus, evidence is growing regarding the influence of moral values in evoking anger.

From the same point of departure, another major discussion in the literature concerns the root causes of anger. Although some approach anger as a trait, others evaluate it from a biological perspective, such that it is more like a loss of social status that then induces a perception of a norm violation. This definition considers an additional level of analysis that relates to the understanding of anger: biological reactions. In this conceptualization, scholars formulate the neurocognitive adaptation of anger from an evolutionary perspective (e.g., Haidt, 2003; Tooby et al., 2008). The evidence suggests that, when a person feels angry, the brain functions in ways that are distinct from other emotional reactions, especially for men compared to women (Sell, Tooby, & Cosmides, 2009). These studies have explored the evolutionary foundations of anger concerning cooperation, aggression, and bargaining in conflictual human interactions. To biologists, anger is the feeling of pain and discomfort, which, if experienced continuously, is associated with various types of coronary heart disease, such as low heart rate variability, coagulation, and hypertension (Suls, 2018).

Each of these perspectives tackles a separate analytical level that complements the others, to provide a wider understanding of anger. Over the last few decades, scholarly research on anger as a central emotion of approach, motivation, and action has greatly advanced our understanding in various ways. Given this theoretical basis, the next section, “Conceptualizing Anger and Related Emotions,” outlines the principal approaches to conceiving emotions, specifically anger.

Conceptualizing Anger and Related Emotions

One controversy in the contemporary literature on emotions concerns how to conceptualize them. Overall, scholars have agreed on three distinct but related approaches to the study of emotions (Brader & Marcus, 2013; Redlawsk & Pierce, 2017).

The first common approach has been to label emotions by valence, where the classification is made in terms of the simple positivity or negativity of the emotional response (Eagly & Chaiken, 1993; Fishbein & Ajzen, 1975; Lodge & Taber, 2005). The gist of this approach is that an initial fast, basic, and automatic affective reaction to an external target (e.g., a political candidate, event, issue, or policy) generates the motivation for downstream processing stages. Valence theory claims that political judgments and decisions appear to be made through the answer to one simple question: “How do I feel about it?” Instead of engaging in a deliberative, effortful process of listing the pros and cons of a decision, individuals simply reach their preferences by consulting their initial feelings about the object (Fazio, Sanbonmatsu, Powell, & Kardes, 1986; Schwarz & Clore, 1983). Thus, a person’s judgment on a like–dislike continuum may strongly correlate with his or her preference for a political choice, which implies that political choices may result from simple like–dislike evaluations.

Conceptually, the valence approach is robust. Negative and positive emotions can be distinguished and linked to the foundational motivational systems of approach and avoidance. Those who feel positive about an object—whether political or not—wish to approach the object. By contrast, those who feel negative wish to avoid it to protect themselves from any negative outcomes. From this perspective, a basic division of negative and positive feelings determines subsequent cognitive appraisal of an object.

Research using the valence approach has formed the foundations of emotion research in the literature since the early 1980s. Both social psychologists studying the primacy of affect paradigm (e.g., Bargh, 1984, 1994, 2007; Zajonc, 1980), as well as political scientists (e.g., Erisen, Lodge, & Taber, 2014; Lodge, McGraw, & Stroh, 1989; Lodge & Taber, 2005; Sniderman, Tetlock, & Brody, 1991), have relied on valence theory. Across these studies, scholars have used the valence approach to differentiate between sources of negativity and positivity, to understand the basic paradigm of affect.

A second way of conceptualizing emotional reactions is through appraisal theories, which consider emotions as discrete constituencies (Lazarus, 1991; Roseman, 1991; Smith & Ellsworth, 1985). In response to the potential drawbacks of the valence approach, appraisal theory draws on the notion that emotions are constituent experiences: that is, for example, fear is not the same as anger, which in turn is not the same as sadness. Although an appraisal may be triggered consciously or preconsciously, the interaction between the individual and the situation leads to the formation of the discrete emotion. The outcome of each discrete emotion is a change in behavioral preferences, also known as action tendencies (Brader, 2006; Elster, 1999; Frijda, 1986). Appraisal theory postulates that because each emotion can evoke distinct behavioral outcomes, and each can differ from another, the cause and effect chain of each emotion should be studied separately (Carver & Harmon-Jones, 2009).

Part of the literature on emotions in political science has relied on this approach of exploring the appraisal tendency of an emotion first before investigating its political consequences. Scholars have been particularly interested in two negative emotions: anger and fear (e.g., Huddy, Feldman, & Cassese, 2007; Valentino et al., 2011; Valentino, Hutchings, Banks, & Davis, 2008). An overview of this literature is provided in “Distinguishing Anger From Fear.”

The third approach is neural process theories (Brader & Marcus, 2013). These are distinct from the previous two approaches as they derive from neuroscience research in the 1980s (Damasio, 1994; Gray, 1987, 1990; LeDoux, 1993; Rolls, 2000). While drawing on neuroscientists’ conceptualizations of emotions, the foundations of these theories closely relate to the negative–positive valence approach. The primary difference is that neural process theories argue that negativity and positivity are separate dimensions, ranging from low to high according to the felt emotion. Thus, it is not a simple valence approach because it also considers the extent of the emotional reaction.

One prevalent theory in political science offers the best application of the neural approach in the literature. Championed by George Marcus and his colleagues (Marcus et al., 2000), the theory of affective intelligence includes two dimensions like neural process theories do. The original version posited that emotion can be conceptualized in terms of two relatively independent systems that influence an individual’s use of effortful versus disposition-based processing. The disposition system refers to using emotions to provide direct guidance and facilitate approach-oriented behaviors. In this condition, in making political decisions, voters tend to rely on political heuristics and habits (e.g., prior political partisan preferences, a focus on personally important issues, and a tendency to vote for incumbents). The surveillance system, on the other hand, motivates voters to scan their environment while relying less on prior beliefs and habits. Specifically, the second system refers to emotions that warn individuals to focus their attention on threatening stimuli in order to seek more information about them. Thus, according to affective intelligence theory, when individuals feel anxious about politics and political candidates, they seek out more information about the targeted political topic. By contrast, when voters feel positive or enthusiastic, they are more likely to rely on their habitual political behaviors and involvement in politics.

The dimensional approach of affective intelligence has been successfully applied to various issues in political science. Ranging from political campaigning (Brader, 2005, 2006) to interest in learning (Albertson & Gadarian, 2015), to perceived threat (Erisen, 2013; Huddy, Feldman, Taber, & Lahav, 2005), to attention to politics (MacKuen, Marcus, Neuman, & Keele, 2007; Valentino et al., 2008), researchers have used affective intelligence theory as the central conceptualization of emotions in political science.

MacKuen et al. (2010) introduced a third dimension of aversion (or anger) in affective intelligence, accounting for developments in contemporary emotions research, particularly in relation to affective appraisal models of emotion. In their three-dimensional neural processes approach, Brader and Marcus (2013, p. 169) argue that aversion (or anger) generates hypotheses about the role of normative violations, as well as defensive and aggressive actions to protect extant identifications and convictions.

In this new paradigm of affective intelligence, the three emotion domains stem from preconscious neural antecedents to generate an array of emotions in each specific dimension. Enthusiasm, ranging from lethargic to enthusiastic, and anxiety, ranging from calm to anxious, are the first two dimensions included in the original version of the theory. The third dimension, aversion (or anger), is involved when facing threats in familiar circumstances. On that note, anger stems from negative valence and becomes a neural dimension in connection with conscious and preconscious cognitive appraisals.

Regarding appraisal studies of emotions, more research has been conducted to explore the differences between anger and fear. Although both stem from negative evaluations, they have repeatedly been found to differ in how people perceive information and subsequently behave. That is, because anger and fear have distinct causes, they promote distinct outcomes, as is explored in the next section, “Distinguishing Anger From Fear.”

Distinguishing Anger From Fear

Affective responses occur in parallel. That is, when one feels a certain emotion, the situation is also probably associated with other emotions. Emotions are swift, non-semantic appraisals that occur without significant deliberation and are preceded by subtle influences (Erisen et al., 2014). Because of neural processes, preconscious processing of a signal may trigger downstream processing. In terms of generating emotional reactions, preconscious processes are often defined using the valence approach (on the negative–positive dimension), whereas subsequent processing involves cognition-led appraisals, which in turn can lead to the three specific dimensions before finally differentiating into discrete emotions. Thus, a preconsciously triggered negative assessment is first associated with anxiety or anger, depending on the degree of uncertainty in the situation, before differentiating itself as the discrete emotion of anger rather than associated emotions such as frustration, contempt, or resentment (Brader & Marcus, 2013, p. 174).

Considering this theoretical approach, the only major difference between the discrete approach and the dimensional approach concerns categorization. In the former, every possible emotion can be categorized, whereas in the latter, potential emotional states can be ordered from low to high in terms of the degree (or arousal level) of that emotion type. According to the neural approach, one can also feel distinct emotions simultaneously.

Especially when it comes to understanding the antecedents and consequences of anger, it is relevant to note that it has been mostly compared to anxiety or fear. Putting aside the theoretical approach, anger and anxiety, as two most studied negative emotions, are tackled in tandem to explore and explain how they differ across a number of political and non-political domains, including threat perception, risk assessment, participation, and group relations. The following discussion extends the prominent differences between anger and anxiety.

Fear

Fear is probably one of the most studied emotions in contemporary research in political science. Scholars have studied fear across various domains relevant to political science, including terrorism, threat perception, learning habits, attention to information, and interest in seeking information.1 In terms of neurological systems, fear relates to the inhibition (Gray, 1987) or surveillance system (Marcus et al., 2000) that makes one stop and evaluate the environment before taking further action. Fear principally leads people to direct their attention to getting more information about the cause of the threat and understanding the situation, thereby increasing cognitive effort.

The principal motivator triggering fear is perceived uncertainty (Huddy et al., 2005): how uncertain or unusual the event or the situation is. The greater the level of uncertainty, the higher the level of fear. People experiencing the pressure of high uncertainty become more anxious, leading them to perceive greater threat and hence become anxious. Uncertainty especially increases when one lacks control over a situation and does not know what determines it. Applying these circumstances to the political realm, scholars find that simple cues, such as frightening visual material or music, or politicians’ facial expressions, can make people just as anxious as explicit stimuli, such as threat-provoking information about out-groups or terrorist attacks.

Fear leads to two competing actions: fight or flight. Flight gets one away from the cause of the emotion, whereas fight makes people take action against the cause itself. Thus, although the behavioral outcome of fear can involve a decision of either fight or flight, both aim to remove the cause of uncertainty. In either case, one also needs to gather information about the source of the uncertainty, be risk-averse through conciliatory behavior, and adopt self-protective behavior. As an emotion that motivates the person to reduce the level of uncertainty in the environment, fear always promotes effort toward structure seeking (Whitson, Galinsky, & Kay, 2015). Under anxiety, for example, political habits like party identification do not provide sufficient safety, so people pay more attention to current information in the environment in order to learn more about the issue and find a secure position. At the same time, however, receiving more information when anxious also makes people more ambivalent (Groenendyk, 2016). All these outcomes represent one type of an avoidance behavior.2

Anger

It is clear that negative emotions can be inter-related in that people are also angry when they are afraid. Consequently, in terms of measurement, it is very difficult to separate fear from anger. However, although fear is a withdrawal emotion, anger is an approach emotion. For MacKuen et al. (2010), the emotions associated with anger fall within the dimension of aversion, which is part of the disposition system. When faced with familiar but disliked or threatening stimuli, the disposition system initiates anger. This approach relies on violations of normative beliefs and attitudes.

The primary consequence of anger is therefore to “fight” the cause of the emotion. Anger leads people to cause the object of anger to suffer by initiating the inclination of seeking revenge (Frijda, 1986). Previous research on anger has repeatedly shown that anger makes people take action rather than withdraw. Cognitive appraisal theories support this claim that angry people take punitive actions against out-group members while furiously trying to bolster their own position and preferences (Huddy, Feldman, & Cassese, 2007; Erisen, Vasilopoulou, & Kentmen-Cin, 2019). In the political realm, anger makes people rely on partisan habits and motivates political participation while simultaneously blocking the willingness to learn (Valentino et al., 2011). Anger increases the value of partisan positions and political preferences, especially when the situation offers incongruent or challenging information on the subject (MacKuen et al., 2010; Suhay & Erisen, 2018).

Differentiating Anger From Fear Regarding Threat Perception and Risk Involvement

Previous studies have demonstrated the distinct nature of emotions. In one seminal study, Conover and Feldman (1986) provided important inferences about the role of emotions in political evaluations. First, they showed the general effects of emotions on political judgments, which support the hypothesis that emotional reactions are important in understanding political evaluations. Their second key finding was that positive and negative emotions have distinct influences on political evaluations. Thirdly, and most importantly, they revealed that feelings of fear and anger about the economy differentially influence individual political evaluations. When people perceive that economic indicators (e.g., inflation, unemployment) are controllable by accountable individuals, they strongly respond to negative events with anger. On the other hand, when they perceive economic indicators to be uncontrollable, they feel afraid about negative events and react with less anger. The conclusion from this is that, although both are negative emotions, anger and fear promote distinct political evaluations.

Anger and fear also promote distinct proclivities in the context of threat perception. One of the first tests differentiating anger from fear comes from the psychological and appraisal-tendency approach (Loewenstein, Weber, Hsee, & Welch, 2001). Drawing on earlier psychological research on risk behavior, Lerner and Keltner (2000, 2001) focused on how negative emotions of anger and fear induce different assessments of risk. In several experimental studies, they found that, despite having the same valence, anger and fear differ profoundly in generating distinct behavioral outcomes regarding risk assessments. They also found that fearful people make pessimistic risk assessments (of higher risk), whereas angry people make optimistic risk assessments (of lower risk). Extending these findings to political issues, they were able to show the distinct effects of anger and fear on the perceived risks of terrorism in the aftermath of 9/11. Specifically, subjects who were experimentally manipulated to be angry were more optimistic about potential terror events and were more likely to give punitive responses concerning policies for countering terrorism. By contrast, subjects who were experimentally manipulated to be afraid and anxious were more pessimistic about terrorism and more conciliatory in their policy judgments.

Similarly, Huddy et al. (2005) emphasized how threat perceptions and anxiety promote distinct behavioral outcomes with respect to terrorism. Heightened anxiety induces risk aversion, which in turn increases public preference for conciliatory policies through diplomacy, combined with disapproval of presidential performance. Threat perceptions, on the other hand, increase support for military action, punitive policies, and curtailment of civil liberties. Huddy, Feldman, and Cassese (2007) extended these findings to present clear evidence of the distinct behavioral effects of anger and anxiety on political preferences and political thinking. More specifically, they found that anxious individuals oppose military action, its risks, and its potentially dangerous outcomes, whereas angry individuals strongly support all military action and other measures against terrorists and potential threats.

Because anxiety heightens perceived threat, it reduces feelings of secure attachment. By contrast, secure attachment can reduce anxious reactions to terrorist events (such as 9/11), if not control them entirely. Huddy, Feldman, and Weber (2007) explored how a sense of security and its interaction with perceived threat influences support for security policies. Particularly interesting in this study was that felt security moderated the influence of threat on anxiety toward supporting national security policies and overseas military action. That is, these authors showed that perceived threat has the greatest impact on support for risky foreign policy decisions involving military action when felt security is at its lowest level.

With respect to seeking more information and paying attention to information, there are also several studies in the domain of political communication. Because media (written, visual, or social) is the primary source of information for voters, emotions could influence how much people pay attention to information regarding a political subject. As a major part of the theory of affective intelligence, earlier studies found that anxiety increases information-seeking behavior (Albertson & Gadarian, 2015; Redlawsk, Civettini, & Lau, 2007; Valentino et al., 2008), interest in learning about the subject (Hutchings, Valentino, Philpot, & White, 2006), ambivalence on political topics (Groenendyk, 2016), and discussion about the topic (Weber, 2013), in addition to promoting greater trust in a charismatic leader (Merolla & Zechmeister, 2009). Anxiety motivates increased information search, whereas anger decreases it. MacKuen et al. (2010) reported that citizens are less likely to deliberate and seek information when aversion is apparent. Other researchers have confirmed these results: that anger leads people to spend less time reading about an issue (Valentino et al., 2008) or discussing a topic (Huddy, Feldman, & Cassese, 2007), and to adopt a close-minded state by rejecting alternative views (Suhay & Erisen, 2018).

Regarding participation in politics, Valentino et al. (2011) find that anxiety increases the likelihood of participation in less-threatening activities, such as paying attention to news or seeking information about the subject, whereas anger promotes participation in risk-involving activities, such as joining social movements. Weber (2013) also confirms these results on the mobilizing effects of anger, adding that sadness demobilizes participation. Studies in the context of social movement participation and group relations provide similar findings: that anger but not anxiety is a motivating emotion toward aggression (van Zomeren, Spears, Fischer, & Leach, 2004), especially in the context of intergroup relations (Banks, 2014; Halperin, Canetti-Nisim, & Hirsch-Hoefler, 2009; Zeitzoff, 2014) and intergroup violence (Claassen, 2016). These studies collectively have a common outcome: that angry individuals are significantly more likely to engage in an approach activity, regardless of the risks, than those who feel anxious about the same events. Anger in turn provides the motivation to overcome the problems of collective action (Groenendyk & Banks, 2014) in gathering groups of individuals and pursuing the risky activity.

Overall, these studies show that although anger and fear are both considered negatively valenced, they actually promote distinct attitudinal and behavioral outcomes regarding threat perception, risk preferences, information seeking, and political participation.

Anger and Its General Effects

In the field of in political science, a number of articles offer new results on the general effects of anger on policy preferences. For instance, Fisk, Merolla, and Ramos (2018) find that anger drives support for drone strikes against terrorist threats. In testing across three countries (France, the United States, and Turkey), authors confirm that anger is the key mediator on the effect of threat perception on aggressive foreign policy.

Gervais (2018) presents substantial support for how elite incivility propels anger, which drives the degree of rude behavior in political expression. Through an experimental test of expectations, the study shows how incivility can flow from elites to the mass public. An important finding is that anger decreases open-mindedness, activates disdain for and bias toward partisan out-groups, and stimulates more aggressive behavior.

One important study on the effects of anger on economic preferences provides several interesting results (Kettle & Salerno, 2017). Across four experimental studies, angry individuals were more likely to support economic conservatism, which in turn leads toward espousing conservative economic ideals and support for the candidate offering these ideals. More importantly, anger does not promote conservatism in a broader sense, but it motivates greater perception of competitiveness and discourages societal resource distribution, especially when these resources are scarce. The critical contribution of this study is that the single liberal-conservative dimension of ideology does not necessarily address why economic ideals change as a function of emotions, that is, anger in this case, rather than as a result of sociocultural conservatism.

Anger and Its Effects on Information Processing

According to some models, anger combines elements of anxiety and enthusiasm (Gray, 1990). People experience anger only when their goals have been threatened, including when their values (Mullen & Skitka, 2006) or political opinions (Redlawsk et al., 2007) are challenged. However, unlike in cases of anxiety or fear, additional judgments are made: a person feels capable of countering the threat and feels the threat is illegitimate (see especially Lazarus, 1991; Smith & Ellsworth, 1985). Anger may also be more likely to occur in response to more familiar (as opposed to novel) threats (MacKuen et al., 2010).

In terms of effects, anger is associated with superficial reasoning and reliance on preexisting cognitive heuristics (Huddy, Feldman, & Cassese, 2007). It decreases people’s interest in learning about candidates with whom they disagree (Redlawsk et al., 2007) and motivates them to seek out information that supports their point of view (MacKuen et al., 2010). Anger also motivates people to attack (physically or metaphorically) the person or thing perceived as unfairly blocking their goals (Lazarus, 1991; Young, Tiedens, Jung, & Tsai, 2011).

In their experimental study of reactions to courtroom verdicts, Mullen and Skitka (2006, p. 640) found that anger in response to verdicts that “challenged perceivers’ moral convictions” appeared to drive perceptions that the legal proceedings had been conducted unfairly. Similarly, Young et al. (2011) found that anger in a political context makes people more likely to seek out disconfirming information in order to counter-argue. In sum, anger causes people to both lean heavily on their prior dispositions and respond in a hostile manner toward people and ideas that undermine them. In short, the case for anger as a major predictor of politically biased assimilation is compelling.

Scholarly research has shown that angry reactions to opposition viewpoints play a key role in the biased evaluation of political arguments (Suhay & Erisen, 2018). This is quite an important challenge for public opinion. Anger effectively closes citizens’ minds to new information that might lead them to reconsider their views in ways that ultimately better serve their values and interests. Those seeking to decrease motivated reasoning might consider implementing reforms that target angry reactions to political information. This may be easier said than done, of course; however, one simple reform is to encourage communicators to avoid framing political information as part of a well-defined political battle between opposing sides, as is so common in polarized societies (for related research, see Bolsen, Druckman, & Cook, 2014; Fowler & Gollust, 2015). Such politicization not only likely raises ideologues’ defenses but is also often inaccurate, given that policy debates are nuanced and that supporters and opponents tend to be less ideologically doctrinaire than as depicted in news stories.

Anger and Its Effects on Group Relations and Ethnocentrism

Studies of intergroup relations show that anger plays a major role in fueling negative feelings between in-group and out-group. Most of those studies have reported the negative effects of in-group anger toward out-groups. The essence of these findings concerns aggressive and violent actions against the out-group to provide “justice” for the in-group. The following studies exemplify how emotions interact with ethnocentric, group-based attitudes and preferences.

In a study of race, Banks (2014) reported the distinct ways in which anger can influence attitudes toward racial and immigration policies in United States. Ethnic or racial threat is one of the most divisive factors in many countries, not just in the United States. Within social identity theory (Tajfel, 1981), ethnocentrism is the mentality where people are categorized as “us” versus “them.” In politics, ethnocentrism is primarily a threat-driven response whereby members of the in-group oppose policies tailored to address the difficulties faced by minorities or other out-groups. When they sense an increased threat from a certain group, people tend to become ethnocentric in favor of their in-group bias (Kinder & Kam, 2016). What is interesting in Banks’s studies is the consistent evidence that emotions (anger in particular) drive ethnocentric preferences even when there is no actual threat. Particularly in the United States, white people’s dispositions toward pro-black and pro-Hispanic policies are a function of the degree of incidental anger. Evoked through experiments, Banks finds that anger’s negative effect on racial and immigration policies is moderated by one’s level of ethnocentrism. Overall, anger fuels opposition to immigration and race policies, especially among highly ethnocentric white individuals.

In a separate strand of research, mainly applied to intractable conflicts, such as the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, emotions such as anger and hatred play major roles in attitude formation and behavior. Halperin and his colleagues have applied the theory of emotions—primarily in line with the premises of the appraisal approach—to this unresolved conflict. Stemming from the appraisal of out-group’s behavior as unjust and unfair, the motivation to correct the wrongdoing of the adversary, coupled with in-group strength, contributes to the felt anger in the public. As a result, anger is the primary negative emotion contributing to intractable conflicts, not only in Israel (e.g., Halperin & Gross, 2011) but also across various conflicts, including those in Northern Ireland (Tam, Hewstone, Kenworthy, Cairns, 2007) and Spain (Sabucedo, Durán, Alzate, & Rodríguez, 2011).

From a related yet distinct point of view, a growing number of recent studies demonstrate the potentially positive effects of anger in peace-making processes (e.g., Tagar, Federico, & Halperin, 2011). Tackling the study of emotions at the group level as opposed to an individual-level phenomenon, they show how anger can in fact motive a willingness to take non-aggressive policy risks in political negotiations. In two separate studies, Tagar et al. (2011) experimentally showed that anger could stimulate nonviolent action. As an approach emotion, anger increases the likelihood of preferring nonviolent strategies in the de-escalation phase of intractable conflicts. A similar study by Halperin, Russell, Dweck, and Gross (2011) reported that anger bolsters support for compromise, particularly for those who score low on hatred on the issue of Israeli–Palestinian conflict. Finally, in two studies, Halperin et al. (2011) found consistent evidence across studies that anger’s positive effect of inducing greater compromise in protracted conflicts is conditioned by the level of hatred on the issue. Overall, these studies suggest how anger could be used for constructive rather than destructive means, which is a remarkable contribution to the conflict resolution literature.

Anger and Its Effects on Social Mobilization and Participation

Social media participation is another important domain of study in which emotions have produced various effects regarding the likelihood of mobilization for a social movement and social media participation. In that debate, some studies have looked at the direct role of anger in online news behavior (e.g., Hasell & Weeks, 2016). With the use of a three-wave representative panel, they showed that online news use is associated with anger directed toward the opposing party’s presidential candidate. Just as in the reaction vote model, the more individuals get angry with a political candidate, the more likely they become to prefer media information from a pro-attitudinal source rather than other sources with more diverse information. This study also shows that anger increases sharing behavior on social media. Interestingly, this behavior is driven by partisan media that encourage political information sharing by evoking anger in the audience. In one sense, therefore, the media promotes anger in the public to induce extensive sharing habits on social media.

One aspect of mobilization refers to social media activity and online behavior on digital platforms. Brady et al. (2018) has demonstrated across three studies that tweets that evoke anger are associated with greater diffusion, in terms of sharing habits, for both liberals and conservatives. They show that online content that appeals to the moral values of political identities is significantly more likely to be shared and become popular. This suggests that the spread of “fake news” in both time and depth is associated with the evocation of moral values and emotional content. Moral contagion, like affective contagion, is a dominant paradigm in the polarizing and growingly populist world. Those candidates who speak to conservative moral values are more likely to appeal to emotional content and motivate their partisans to exchange and distribute politically loaded information (whether fake or true), especially during election campaigns.

One additional component of anger and its interaction with polarization is that it creates social bubbles composed of like-minded individuals feeling and acting the same way on political issues and policies. These ideology-driven echo chambers function in coordination with the depth of anger to draw groups away from each other, thereby lowering tolerance and encouraging political and social deadlock. In a similar vein, Delton, Petersen, and Robertson (2018) present robust evidence for the role of emotions in social pressure where anger toward in-group members (rather than out-group members) promotes others to vote in a certain direction. Anger may thus function as a primary motivating force on vote choice, particularly for the far-right political parties.

Anger and the Populist Attitudes and Vote Choice

Populism is a growing challenge for both developing and developed nations. Fueling themselves through divisiveness and polarization across an array of social and political issues, populist leaders know how to play with emotions to raise support for their own interests. Current research in political psychology extends the reach of studies on emotions to distinct aspects of citizen behavior, including vote choice and attitudes toward populist parties. Anger appears as the most relevant and important factor influencing the core of populist attitudes and voter behavior. Only a handful of recent articles have studied this topic so far, including the following.

Primarily motivated by the theory of affective intelligence, a recent study by Vasilopoulos, Marcus, Valentino, and Foucault (2019) shows that anger is the key emotion promoting a propensity to vote for the far right, whereas fear was negatively associated with voting for the Front National in France’s 2015 regional elections. Anger appears to operate through dispositional convictions, such as authoritarianism and right-wing ideology.

Erisen and Vasilopoulou (2019) take a similar approach and interact the effect of distrust with anger to explore the growing traction of far-right parties and leaders in Germany and the Netherlands. With the use of representative survey data in both countries, the authors present strong evidence for the premise of how anger promotes significant support for far-right parties, especially in the context of heightened social and political distrust.

Again, in the context of Europe, another study by Magni (2017) shows that the effects of anger about the economic crisis on vote choice in the United Kingdom are conditional on political efficacy. As an approach emotion, anger strengthens the motivation to make a change in the elections, although perceived efficacy limits what can be achieved. To those with low efficacy, traditional channels did not look meaningful; hence they were less likely to participate and were more likely to follow populist rhetoric challenging the current establishment. For high-efficacy voters, anger increases the likelihood of voting for mainstream opposition parties, such as the Conservatives in the United Kingdom. Unlike Vasilopoulos et al. (2019), Magni did not find a bolstering effect of fear against the populist U.K. Independence Party (UKIP). This indicates that either issue dependency or context dependency (or both) could be affecting the influence of emotions on voter choice, demanding further empirical tests.

Similarly, Rico, Guinjoan, and Anduiza (2017) tested how populist attitudes are driven by anger rather than fear. Taking an appraisal approach, they neatly show how expressed anger over the economic crisis increases support for populism in Spain. Given that the economic crisis hit Spain particularly hard among EU member states, it was a major source of negative feelings in the Spanish public. Among those negative feelings, anger and fear are the most relevant two discrete emotions that Rico et al. (2017) considered in preservation of populist attitudes. Across three waves, they found that anger was the key factor promoting populist attitudes as opposed to fear. Although these studies are powerful in their analysis of how anger and fear distinctively influence populist behavior, reciprocal assumptions still require stringent causal tests through experiments.

Given these studies and the growing body of scholarly work on populism, the role that emotions play in this major global problem demand further research across contexts and issues, and with the use of causal designs. In light of this discussion, the next section, “Reflections of Anger on Democratic Politics” offers some thoughts about how anger influences democratic progress.

Reflections of Anger on Democratic Politics

Anger is probably the most frequently felt emotion in the contemporary political realm across various countries. Especially in populist nations where politics is driven by tribalism, anger (and its cousins) is an everyday experience in the lives of regular citizens as much as the politicians’. From increased hate crimes to domestic terror; from incivility on political matters to aggressive preference for risky policies; from increased intolerance across groups to weakened compromise in political platforms, anger dominates the nature of policymaking, challenges the foundations of democratic institutions, and poisons democratic politics.

In particular, among the various effects discussed in this article, anger blocks the ability to accept different ideas and ideologies, motivates reflective and reactionary voting, fuels motivated biases, and limits the ability to self-correct misinformation or misperceptions (Erisen, 2018; Suhay & Erisen, 2018; Vasilopoulos et al., 2019). Taken together, anger pushes groups and people away from one another toward opposite ends, thereby provoking polarized politics (Iyengar & Westwood, 2015; Mason, 2015).

One relevant point here is the ideological foundations and political behavioral propensities that result from anger. Consistent evidence from earlier studies shows that conservatives and liberals have different propensities regarding the arousal of emotions and their effects (Hibbing, Smith, & Alford, 2014; Jost, 2017; Jost, Glaser, Kruglanski, & Sulloway, 2003). More specifically, conservatives tend to be more sensitive than liberals to high-arousal emotions across various negative emotions, including contempt, disgust, anxiety, and threat, as well as anger. A common theme in the reactions of conservatives is that they strongly rely on moral values on social issues. Given this, future research should further explore whether ideology actually is a precedent for the emotion of anger in the public at large.

Finally, the current literature seems to pay insufficient attention to coping mechanisms for anger. Although almost all studies have tackled various issues with respect to the foundations and consequences of anger, there are no specific theories on how to reduce anger in polarized societies. Yet, given the negative consequences of anger for democratic institutions, there is an urgent need to investigate possible remedies for this challenge.

Anger and Its Cousins: Its Relationship to Hatred, Revenge, Disgust, and Contempt

A number of closely associated emotions, such as hatred, revenge, disgust, and contempt, all load on the negative emotions dimension, as does anger. As discussed in the context of group relations (e.g., Fischer, Halperin, Canetti, & Jasini, 2018), anger and hatred are closely associated, with the primary differentiation being the degree of reaction. Whereas anger motivates the individual to reverse the unjust situation and correct the norm violation, hatred goes a step further by motivating elimination of the cause of the emotion (Van Doorn, 2018). In short, the former relates to an unjust situation, whereas the latter refers to an unjust nature.

Extensive research conducted by Halperin and his colleagues has shown how hatred is a central emotion in intractable conflicts and in conflict resolution. Although closely linked with anger in the same domain of negativity, hatred differentiates itself by an appraisal that implies “a stable perception of a person or group and the incapability to change the extremely negative characteristics attributed to the target of hate” (Fischer et al., 2018, p. 2). In other words, anger appraises others as people whose behavior can be influenced and changed, whereas hatred appraises others as having “a malevolent nature and malicious intent.”

Earlier scholars also questioned whether feelings of revenge constitute a discrete emotion or an experience that may be called hate (e.g., Elshout, Nelissen, & van Beest, 2015). In this discussion, revenge appears to stem from a self-observed threat that promotes greater risk acceptance regarding the source of hate. According to Frijda (1994), revenge has an intrapersonal focus, whereby action is taken by the individual. In the case of hatred, in intractable conflicts particularly, one may act on behalf of the in-group against the out-group, and everyone in the in-group could associate themselves with that action.

Contempt is also strongly associated with anger and its cousins. Defined as a rejection emotion, contempt evokes appraisals of another person as unworthy, inferior, or beneath some standard of competence or morality. Growing research into candidate and party evaluations indicates that contempt strengthens a long-standing negative assessment of the target attached with incompetence and immorality (e.g., Redlawsk, Roseman, Mattes, & Katz, 2018).

Finally, as a part of the behavioral immune system, and perhaps functioning in a different domain than anger, hatred, and revenge, disgust promotes avoidance of potential pathogens and physical distancing from the source of the emotion. Given its evolutionary, biological roots, disgust distinguishes itself from related emotions in various ways—but most importantly in moral convictions. Just as people avoid disgust-triggering events and contexts, judgments referring to social behavior and moral values depend on strong avoidance and rejection. Taken together with anger, disgust functions as a central emotion influencing the moralization of political attitudes. Clifford (2019) addresses one part of the paradox regarding how anger and disgust jointly promote moral evictions and attitudes. Across three experimental studies of food politics, disgust sensitivity plays an important role in issue framing and moralization. Clifford and Jerit (2018) also report that disgusted citizens disengage from the topic and become unwilling to learn more about it.

Conclusion

The review in this article offers an in-depth examination of how the emotion of anger is a key factor for motivation and engagement with action. Once triggered, through various means, whether biologically driven or as a result of observing moral failure and violation of moral norms, anger aims at getting even with the causal source of the emotion. This motivation could lead to risk-acceptant behavior, less perceived threat, higher propensity of participating in social movements, use of social media and sharing of information, becoming uncivil to those who are ideologically different from one’s in-group, eagerness to defend one’s racial group and rejection of policies providing equality across all groups in the society, refusal to entertain different points of views and challenging arguments that are against one’s prior dispositions, dissociation of social networks from one another on the basis of in-group bias versus out-group derogation, and weakening of liberal democratic foundations and institutions. Anger is the fuel for breaking social cohesion in any nation, most especially in the growingly populist nations. Future studies should spend significantly more time in how publics could cope with this primary emotion of surging negativity.

Acknowledgments

Part of this article comes from the earlier work of the author, Political Behavior and the Emotional Citizen: Participation and Reaction in Turkey, 2018, reproduced with permission of Palgrave Macmillan.

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Notes:

(1.) One specific issue arises regarding the conceptualization of fear. So far, political psychologists have used fear and anxiety interchangeably (e.g., Brader, 2006; Marcus et al., 2000; Valentino et al., 2008). Fear and anxiety are quite similar to each other conceptually because the only tangible difference that research has identified between them is the base of reference for the emotion. That is, anxiety relates to a state, whereas fear is an emotion (Brader & Marcus, 2013). As the distinctiveness of these two concepts is still under investigation, this article follows the current approach in political science by using “fear” and “anxiety” interchangeably.

(2.) If the cause of fear represents an imminent existential threat to an individual’s survival, then reactive and preemptive hasty decisions become viable options for self-protection. In such cases, fear can lead to fight behavior.