Study shows anger increases partisan attitudes and political polarization

An angry state of mind makes people’s political view more extreme, and makes them view themselves as more polarized from their political adversaries, an article published in PLoS One reports.

A team of psychologists, led by Michaela Huber of Technische Universitaet Dresden, conducted a pair of experiments to uncover how emotions influence people’s political perceptions. In the first study, conducted in 2006, 117 Colorado residents were asked questions regarding their views of the Bush administration’s handling of the events of Hurricane Katrina.

Half of the study participants were asked to write about an event that made them angry, while the other half wrote about one that made them sad. Reminding someone of an experience by asking them to write about it has the effect of re-creating the emotions that went along with the experience.

Republicans who were made to feel angry reported stronger support of the Bush administration, compared with those who had been made to feel sad. They also estimated that the average Republican would be more supportive, and that the average Democrat would be more critical of the Bush administration, indicating that they viewed the American political landscape as more polarized.

The study team found similar results in a second study of 303 adults recruited on the internet and conducted in January 2011, dealing with reactions to the Tucson, Arizona mass shooting targeting US Representative Gabrielle Giffords. This study added a third group, in addition to those being led to experience anger or sadness, who were given an emotionally neutral memory to write about. Participants were asked about their support for controversial remarks made by Republican politician Sarah Palin in the wake of the shooting.

Republicans who were made to feel angry were more supportive of Palin, and estimated a greater polarization of opinion between Democrats and Republicans on this issue, compared with those who were made to feel sad or who had neutral emotions.

The study authors suggest that these results were found for Republicans but not for Democrats because both the Katrina and Tucson controversies left Republicans defending their actions. Democrats would be likely to have similar reactions to anger when responding to situations that put members of their own party on the defensive.

As concerns rise about the risks of partisan polarization in the American political discourse, the authors of this study conclude that these results highlight the role that angry rhetoric can play in driving people further apart. They warn that “being angry can increase the political divide—and perceptions of the political divide—which may pose a barrier to intergroup cooperation, compromise, and democratic functioning.”