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People often feel strongly about politics and this drives their behaviour. For instance, anxiety often motivates people to learn more about a political issue and anger brings us to the voting booth. But we know relatively little about where these emotions come from or how to predict them. Political scientist Isabella Rebasso studied political emotions and found they do not follow the usual pattern of emotions, as we know them in everyday life. While in our personal lives there is a clear distinction between different emotions, each guiding us to deal effectively with a specific social situation, in politics all negative emotions are strikingly similar to each other.

(photo: Shutterstock)

‘Emotions are how we react to our surroundings,’ explains Rebasso. ‘They guide us in dealing with social situations by making us feel motivated to respond in a certain way. For example, we become anxious when we are uncertain about a situation, which leads us to be more cautious and on the lookout for problems. Alternatively, we become angry when we are certain about why something bad has happened or when we experience a strong sense of agency, putting us into ‘approach-attack mode’. However, most emotion theories that explain emotional reactions in personal life do not necessarily explain emotions in politics.’

Not the usual pattern

To discern the pattern of emotions in politics, Rebasso conducted a study among 1,241 U.S. citizens asking them to describe strong emotional experiences, whether in politics or their personal life. ‘For instance, we inquired whether the situation involved a violation of a norm or moral value, or if they felt they had control over changing the outcome of the event. Subsequently, we trained an algorithm to predict the expected emotion for each experience.’

In politics negative emotions are strikingly similar to each other

The study showed emotions aligning  with what would be expected when it came to personal life evaluations, such as anxiety when uncertain or anger when blaming others for a negative experience. But emotions in politics exhibited remarkable similarity. 'In politics, people commonly express heightened anger compared to personal life. But our study also uncovered anxiety, despair, and guilt, where anger might have been expected. This suggests that in politics negative emotions overlap, making the distinctions that are relevant in our personal lives less significant.’

Politics are broader and further away

Part of the explanation for these distinct patterns of political emotions is that politics operate on a much broader scale than our personal lives. ‘Personal situations are more straightforward to comprehend, while politics feel much further away, and revolve around moral values, matters that, unlike personal situations, lack clearly defined actors. Moreover, politics is predominantly mediated, rarely experienced first-hand but rather conveyed through the media. And in politics, blame tends to be assigned swiftly.’

More confidence leads to more emotional reactions

Rebasso was also intrigued by differences among people. Does how much people know or care about politics make a difference in their emotional responses? To answer this question, she used three waves of the American National Election Study (2012-2020) and two preregistered experiments conducted in the Netherlands and in the U.S..

‘People who are more knowledgeable and passionate about politics tend to have stronger emotional reactions to political events. However, my study shows that this is not solely due to their deeper understanding of politics or more consistent opinions. Primarily, it stems from the confidence these “political experts” have in their own knowledge and their confidence in expressing this.’

She cautions that when people feel highly emotional about politics due to their confidence, they could disseminate information that may not always be accurate. 'Individuals who are very confident about their own understanding are less likely to seek additional information, but they may become the most emotional and vocal voices.'

Emotions in politics are quite complex

Rebasso concludes that while emotions are already quite complex in general, politics introduces an additional layer of complexity. ‘Based on my findings, I propose that we should formulate a specific theory for emotions in politics. Perhaps there are emotions unique to politics, governed by their distinct rules and theories. Exploring how individuals manage their emotions aids our comprehension of how they respond to and interpret political events.’

Thesis details

Isabella Rebasso, 2023, 'Feeling Within Reason: How Appraisals Shape Emotional Responses to Politics'. Supervisors: Dr G. Schumacher and Dr M. Rooduijn.

Time and location

Friday 10 November, 11.00, Aula, Amsterdam