Political convictions emerge from the gut

In the first part of this three part series, my colleague Ellie Shockley described how rational thinking may drive political attitudes and voting behavior. In this second part of the series, I describe how emotion may drive political attitudes and voting behavior. In the final part of this series, Mark Brandt will discuss how emotion and reason each contribute to people’s political attitudes and behaviors.

For a long time, people reasoned their way to the conclusion that they are rational beings who only make decisions after considering the pros and cons of each possible option. Over the past several decades, though, scientists have found limited support for this theory.

Rather, people have more immediate, gut-level emotional reactions to stimuli before they engage in higher-order thinking about the stimuli. Social psychologist Bob Zajonc found support for this hypothesis by flashing smiling or frowning faces on a computer screen faster than the human eye could notice and then asking people to rate how positive or negative Chinese characters were. Participants who rated the characters after what we call having been “subliminally primed” with smiling faces evaluated the characters more positively than after being subliminally primed with the frowning faces.

Consciously or not, political strategists design campaign advertisements that associate positivity with their own candidate and negativity with the other party’s candidate. For example, Lyndon Johnson’s campaign developed the famous “Daisy” commercial where they associated nuclear obliteration with challenger Barry Goldwater. More recently, and more similarly to Zajonc’s research, George W. Bush’s campaign developed a commercial where the word “RATS” was subliminally presented before images of challenger Al Gore. Although neither of these campaigns made any public claims about whether these particular ads actually benefited them in the voting booth, the neuroscientist and author of The Political Brain, Drew Westen has tested this possibility. In a series of studies, Westen found that when people were subliminally primed with the word “RATS”, they rated an anonymous politician less favorably than when subliminally primed with other words or not primed at all (Weinberger & Westen, 2008). In addition to affecting our feelings about particular candidates, subliminal priming of words with a negative valence may also affect how we perceive political arguments.

Milt Lodge, political scientist and author of The Rationalizing Voter, found that when people were primed with the positive words, they evaluated high-quality, strong political arguments more favorably. If they agreed with the argument prior to the priming, they agreed even more after the priming. When people were primed with the negative words, they evaluated the argument less favorably. If they agreed with the argument prior to the priming, they agreed less after the priming. Furthermore, these subliminal primes can have lasting effects, too, suggesting that commercials shown well before people ever get into a voting booth may affect their behavior once they do enter the voting booth.

In addition to subliminal messages, the associations between positive or negative and specific politicians or political arguments can be forged in many other ways, too. For example, even completely non-political elements within a given environment like unpleasant smells (e.g., farts) and tastes (e.g., bitter drinks) also shape our moral and political attitudes (e.g., Eskine, Kacinik, & Prinz, 2011; Horberg, Oveis, Keltner, & Cohen, 2009; Inbar, Pizarro, & Bloom, 2012). Generally, these disgusting feelings lead people to make harsher judgments of deviant actions and individuals. Yet, there is no rational reason for people to become harsher in their attitudes and judgments. Rather, the bad smell in a room or the bad taste in their mouths changes their reaction outside of their awareness. In other words, their attitudes and judgments would be less harsh in the absence of these smells and tastes. Moreover, people expressing their attitudes will rarely attribute their reactions to the unpleasant features in the environment.

If political attitudes and behaviors are truly rational, why would people’s attitudes and behaviors change as a result of irrelevant factors in the environment? Jon Haidt, moral psychologist and author of the New York Times bestseller The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, argues that people are emotional creatures whose attitudes and behaviors are driven by quick, gut-level reactions rather than cold and calculating cost-benefit analyses. Brain scans corroborate this tendency – when presented with pictures, regions of the brain associated with emotions activate before the regions of the brain more associated with higher-level “rational” thinking activate (see Greene & Haidt, 2002). In other words, people feel that some political attitudes are right and others are wrong before they have concocted rational arguments for those attitudes.

Are voters rational? Possibly. Are voters irrational? Not necessarily. What is clear, though, is that voters are emotional and that their attitudes are rooted in gut-level feelings of right and wrong. 


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