Study: Anxiety about mass shootings can temporarily reduce political polarization

Anxiety about the Orlando Pulse nightclub shooting resulted in a marked decline in ideological division between liberals and conservatives, according to new research. The study was published in the journal Research and Politics.

“We’ve been examining gun politics and policy since the late 1990s. In the last few years we have been trying to make use of mainstream social science theories to answer questions in gun politics that would be of general interest to social scientists,” said study author Donald P. Haider-Markel, a professor and chair of the University of Kansas Department of Political Science.

“More broadly we hope these research projects will encourage other social scientists to explore the particular role of guns in American politics and answer questions that the layperson might be interested in.”

The study was based on a national survey of 1,290 adults, which started collecting data just 6 days after the Orlando nightclub shooting in 2016. The mass shooting killed 49 people and wounded 58 others.

About 25 percent of people reported having a significant level of anxiousness about the shooting while 40 percent reported being very anxious.

The researchers found that liberals tended to blame guns more for the shooting, while conservatives tended to blame terrorism more. Likewise, conservatives were less supportive than liberals of gun regulations and conservatives were significantly less likely to believe the government could prevent mass shootings

But anxiety about the mass shooting decreased the differences between liberals and conservatives, mainly by diminishing the impact of ideology among conservatives.

Anxiety about the shooting boosted support for new restrictions on guns, enhanced beliefs that the government could prevent shootings, increased confidence in government and raised presidential approval.

“Emotions can play a powerful role in shaping our political opinions and policy preferences. Emotions can facilitate political polarization, but our research shows that emotions can also temporarily reduce political polarization. This may be especially true after dramatic events,” Haider-Markel told PsyPost.

However, it is unclear how long the effect lasts.

“Given the particular nature of the Orlando Pulse nightclub mass shooting — it was a mass shooting but also labeled as a terrorist attack — our findings may not apply to all mass shootings or mass casualty events,” Haider-Markel noted.

“Future research can determine the generalizability of our findings and assess other ways emotional responses might reduce partisan and ideological predispositions that have polarized us.”

“Much of the debate over guns in America is driven by partisan and ideological predispositions, and is often uninformed,” Haider-Markel added. “Through our research we hope to encourage other researchers and bring more information to the debate.”

The study, “The direct and moderating effects of mass shooting anxiety on political and policy attitudes“, was authored by Mark R. Joslyn and Donald P. Haider-Markel.