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We tend to have strong feelings when it comes to politicians, ranging from disgust to enthusiasm. So just how deep-seated are these feelings? Bert Bakker, Matthijs Rooduijn and Gijs Schumacher studied physical reactions to political messaging and found that the human body actually reacts to politics. Their findings have now been published in the American Political Science Review.

woman who is frowning
Do politics make you frown?

The metaphors 'voting from the heart' or 'voting from the gut' illustrate that emotions play an important role in our political decisions. But what role do these feelings actually play in practice? Do politics make you sweat or frown?

Communication scientist Bert Bakker and political scientists Matthijs Rooduijn and Gijs Schumacher examined emotion's role in politics as a part of their Hot Politics Lab project. They gathered data at the University of Amsterdam's Behavioural Science Lab, and in addition visited the TT car races in Assen, the annual fair of the city of Tilburg, an evangelistic youth day, the music festival Lowlands and the Sound and Vision museum with a special mobile lab.

Measuring physical reactions

The lab experiments measured participants' physical reactions while watching or listening to political messaging that corresponded to or differed from their own views. These physical reactions represent emotions that most people aren't even aware of. Such emotions are referred to as affective responses.

Participants were shown four short videos (40-50 seconds) on four different political issues: immigration, EU, climate and inequality. A right-wing and left-wing message was presented for each topic, to which participants were randomly assigned. The participants were measured as they watched in order to determine the release of moisture on their fingers, the tension of their facial muscles and the rate of their heartbeat.

'We measured the intensity of their affective reactions based on the release of moisture in their fingers. We measured contractions of the muscle above the eyebrow (corrugator) to identify negative affective reactions, and measured positive reactions on the basis of cheek muscle (zygomaticus) contractions', the researchers explained.

Participants display affective responses

As the researchers found, participants did display affective reactions while watching the videos. 'As we expected, people with more extreme views on both the right and the left of the political spectrum experienced more physical excitement while listening to political messages', they explained. They also found that people tend to have negative affective reactions to political messages they disagree with. 'This partly confirms what we knew from existing theory, but had not been actually tested so far.'

The affective responses did not correlate with self-reported emotions. ‘People obviously consciously report their emotions, whereas affective reactions are often unconscious. We're now proposing that self-reported emotions are determined by the participant's "desired" emotional response on the basis of their political leanings.'

Changing views

The question is: does it really matter that people have an affective response to politics? In order to find out, Bakker, Rooduijn and Schumacher asked participants about their views on the various themes at both the beginning and end of the experiment. As it turned out, people who experienced more excitement and/or negative affective reactions were also more likely to change their views.

‘Our study is the first to demonstrate that people don't just claim to have an emotional response to politics: their bodies actually physically react to political messaging’, the researchers concluded.

Details on scientific article 

Bert Bakker, Gijs Schumacher and Matthijs Rooduijn, ‘Hot Politics: Affective responses to political rhetoric.’ In: American Political Science Review

Dr. B.N. (Bert) Bakker

Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences

CW : Political Communication & Journalism

Dr. M. (Matthijs) Rooduijn

Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences

Programme group: Challenges to Democratic Representation

Dr. G. (Gijs) Schumacher

Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences

Programme group: Challenges to Democratic Representation

Bakker, Schumacher and Rooduijn are collaborating with various other researchers on the broader theme of emotions in politics, as part of the Hot Politics Lab: www.hotpolitics.eu