Fear and anger related to the 2016 presidential election and climate change — one of the campaign’s major issues — had different effects on the way conservatives and liberals processed information, according to new research.
The study, published in Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly, suggest that certain emotional underpinnings of political ideology motived how voters sought and processed information about the election and global warming.
“This has important implications for how political dialogue is shaped,” said Dr. Janet Yang, the study’s lead author and a University at Buffalo communication researcher. “It’s not just what the candidates are saying; it’s also how we communicate with one another.”
One point to consider is how political speech evokes intentional and unintentional reactions, she said.
“The more we think about political speech, the more we need to study and monitor the emotions related to it more carefully,” she explained. “Emotional reactions have consequences that should be explored.”
This is true in journalism, as well, she noted.
“In climate change coverage, I think journalists often use language or images that have emotional implications, like the lonely polar bear floating on ice, which could elicit different responses for different people,” she said. “But if we’re able to talk about these issues with the emotional component in mind, then we’re more likely to get people to move toward collective action.”
The goal of Yang’s research team, which included Haoran Chu, a UB graduate student, and Dr. LeeAnn Kahlor, an associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin, was to explore whether risk perception and the emotional responses to that risk — fear and anger — affected information processing, depending on political leanings.
“People usually don’t think of elections as a risk topic, but because the campaigns of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton had emotion-laden narratives, we thought it would be interesting to see if people thought about elections as bearing potential risks,” she said.
The researchers used the Risk Information Seeking and Processing Model, which seeks to understand what contributes to information seeking and information processing related to risk topics.
The model’s premise is that risk perception is both cognitive and emotional. It’s not exclusively a calculation of likelihood and severity, according to the researchers.
Emotion is critical and lack of information is central to the model. The theory argues that people continue processing information until they’ve accomplished their processing goals, the researchers explained.
The researchers collected data from two independent surveys of about 500 U.S. adults in the weeks leading up to the general election in 2016. One questionnaire was about the election and the other climate change.
“Emotion does different things depending on the context, which is quite fascinating,” said Yang.
In the election context, conservatives who sensed fear about the election reported a high need for information, according to the study’s findings. This led them to deal with media coverage, conversations, and other information about the election with a lot of attention, which is considered a systematic approach to information processing.
Related to climate change, liberals who experienced fear were more likely to process information carefully, the researchers noted.
Curiously, anger didn’t influence information-processing strategies as much as fear, according to Yang. However, liberals who were angry when thinking about climate change reported higher perceived knowledge about this topic.
“Fear and anger had very different influences on information-processing strategies,” said Yang. “These emotions also drive conservatives and liberals in distinctive ways.”
Source: University at Buffalo