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New Study Shows How Fear And Anxiety Change Our Political Attitudes


Politicians know that turning on the tears can be a vote winner, but how does the political manipulation of our emotions actually work? A new study in the peer-reviewed journal Political Psychology explores how emotions such as anxiety, even if their cause has nothing to do with politics, can result in a hardening of our views.

“There’s been a lot of focus in recent years on emotions and political attitudes, but the ways we, as political scientists, have studied this phenomena have made it hard to draw firm conclusions,” said study author Dr. Jonathan Renshon, from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “We bypassed many of the methodological problems of previous studies by inducing an emotion unrelated to politics and measuring its effects not with self-reports but with tonic skin conductance.”

The authors believed that induced anxiety could ‘carry over’ to impact political beliefs, potentially triggering prejudice toward groups such as immigrants. When anxiety levels are high voters are more likely to recall negative experiences with immigrants and interpret ambiguous information in a more negative and threatening manner.

To test the theory 138 men from Cambridge, Massachusetts were asked to watch a series of videos before answering surveys. First the group watched relaxing images of beaches and palm trees, before being divided into groups. Two groups watched soothing music or a screensaver of abstract shapes.. The third group was subjected to Sylvester Stallone’s “Cliffhanger.”

The results showed that the heightened physiological reactivity caused by watching two minutes of rope dangling peril, led to stronger anti-immigration attitudes.

“We found that the anxiety we generated was powerful enough that people couldn’t simply turn it off, it carried over to unrelated domains and actually influenced people’s political beliefs, particularly their attitudes towards immigrants,” concluded Renshon. “This is all the more important as political campaigns become more adept at stimulating and manipulating the emotions of the general public.”

political-brains_110407_244x183In general, conservative voters exhibit increased sensitivity to perceived threats, and their voting behaviors are strongly motivated by fear and the desire to avoid change. Prior research has shown that there are actually structural differences in the brains of conservatives versus liberals that help to explain why conservatives tend to respond to fear-based political messages more than liberals. MRI images of the brain reveal that the amygdala, or the “fear center” of the brain, is larger in self-described conservatives, while liberalism is associated with increased gray matter volume in the anterior cingulate cortex – a region in the brain that is believed to help people manage complexity. Other research shows that conservatives have stronger physiological reactions to fear and anxiety, and one recent study found that political conservatism is associated with a genetic propensity for a higher level of baseline fear.

These findings, as well as previous research on the motivating effects of fear for conservative voters, may explain why political messages aimed at Republican voting blocs tend to use anxiety- and fear-provoking strategies to encourage voting behavior.  From the fake ‘horror stories’ used in anti-Obamacare attack ads to outrageously false claims about birth control and abortion to the paranoid rants of the gun lobby, fear tactics are by far the most common method of messaging employed by conservative activists.

republican_fearAll of this research suggests that conservatism is largely a defensive ideology — and therefore, much more appealing to people who go through life sensitive and highly attuned to aversive or threatening aspects of their environments. But those cognitive biases are only part of the story of how a political movement in the wealthiest, most secure nation in the world have come to view their surroundings with such dread. The other half of the equation is a conservative media establishment that feeds members of the movement an almost endless stream of truly terrifying scenarios.


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