Home > Uncategorized > REACTION 2: Emotion & Reason in Political Campaigns for Hearts & Minds

REACTION 2: Emotion & Reason in Political Campaigns for Hearts & Minds

Once again following a truly excellent summary of the methodology and results of this week’s reading (thank you, Missy!), I will focus my response in a slightly different direction, examining the background theory that gives Brader’s work particular power. I found his chapter contrasting conventional wisdom and social scientific research to be intriguing, and his thorough chapter on psychological contributions to emotion theory to be eye-opening. The clarity of the writing, together with the thoroughness and depth of the material covered, was not only exemplary scholarship, it also set the stage for the experiments and content analysis in the later chapters. A 70+ page Lit Review, basically!

Brader notes that “[p]olitical consultants see emotional appeals as central to their craft” (p. 25), but that social scientific research has not investigated the role of emotions as thoroughly as it could. The “art” of campaigning is not reflected in the “science” of research, perhaps due to a cultural bias towards the rational over the emotional. This bias also colors conventional wisdom regarding the art of campaigning, particularly #5 on his list of prevalent beliefs: “campaign ads that rely on emotional appeals are manipulative, lacking in substance, and antithetical to reason or rationality” (p. 35). The association of reason and rationality with higher or more “true” thinking also influences the sixth belief, that “emotional appeals are most effective at influencing uninformed or uneducated voters” (p. 38), a piece of conventional wisdom that is echoed in the research literature. Overall, the conventional wisdom, the “art” of campaigning, recognizes the power of emotional appeals, is not sure how they work (nor perhaps even that interested in finding out how), and is perhaps somewhat concerned that they are manipulative or unethical. The research, however, has concentrated almost exclusively on rational models of citizen behavior, discounting the power of emotional appeals, or relegating their effects to less sophisticated voters.

Before moving on to Brader’s discussion of emotion, I will note that it was interesting reading this book during the week that Jon Stewart announced his Rally to Restore Sanity (and, on a related note, Stephen Colbert announced his tongue-in-cheek March to Keep Fear Alive). In the midst of recent blatant appeals to emotion that have seemed to do nothing but manipulate voters, stoking irrational fears of Muslims and others, certainly my “conventional” wisdom would tell me that what Stewart is doing is providing a needed antidote. And it has been interesting personally to see on Facebook the rather broad swath of my friends who have responded positively to the idea of a rally for rationality and sanity. Yet at the same time, there is no doubt that we humans are emotional as well as rational creatures, and thus appeals to emotion, as Brader shows, can have a proper and productive place in our liberal democracy. (imho, just not Glenn Beck!)

Brader’s chapter “The Political Psychology of Emotional Appeals” was striking in the way that it drew on the best of current psychological research to challenge traditional behavioral and cognitive rational choice approaches to emotion in politics. Recognizing that emotions are grounded in the brain’s response to stimuli that are perceived as significant to one’s goals (or one’s group’s goals), and that cognition is not separate from emotion, but directly related both through preconscious processing and through conscious reflection upon the emotive stimuli, means rethinking the role that emotion might play in political reasoning. Basically, “emotions function as relevance detectors” (p. 55), and further are connected to changes in cognitive activity and an action tendency. Brader draws a crucial distinction between the enthusiasm response, which is connected to achieving one’s goals, and the fear or threat response which causes one to re-evaluate one’s situation. These two emotional, systemic responses underlay much of the research in the book, and lead directly to his hypotheses. I look forward to discussing this chapter further in class!

One thought/question I had regarding his Polarization Hypothesis (that, by activating predispositions, enthusiasm appeals should polarize voters), is whether it would be possible, instead, that an enthusiasm appeal could act as a fear appeal for supporters of the opponent? That is, could the witnessing of the enthusiasm generated by the opponent cause a sense of threat that would cause one to re-evaluate? Or is this really the same thing as the polarization that Brader suggests?

Overall, I concur with Missy that this is a well-written, well-researched book, filled with exemplary, thorough scholarship. That it also helps clarify the strengths and shortcomings of the conventional wisdom of political practitioners is a mark of its significant contribution to the field of political communication, which should, at its core, be interested in bridging the gap between research and practice in such as way as to nurture a vibrant liberal democracy.

  1. Brian Houston
    September 22, 2010 at 5:27 pm

    Let’s come back to your polarization hypothesis in class as I’m not sure I understand what you are asking.

    It’s interesting that you bring up Stewart/Colbert. In a way, Stewart’s is the rational rally whereas Colbert’s is the emotional rally. Of course, Colbert’s rally is satirical, so the combined message of both rallies (if perceived) is that we need much more rational politics. But aren’t they both really arguing for more rational “liberal” politics? Stewart seemed plenty emotional in his opposition to Bush. Irrational (or emotional) in Stewart and Colbert terms is largely conservative. Liberals seem to be advocating rationality now that there person is in charge, but it was not a time for rationality when Bush was in charge.

    What’s really going on, I think and the book seems to provide some argument to support this claim, is that emotionality is much more the province of the partisan as opposed to the liberal/conservative. And Stewart/Colbert are partisans, or they couldn’t be on the television night after night carrying on as they do. Right? Or not? Rationality is only the call to arms when people are screaming and freaking out about your candidate.

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