Emotions linked to political ideology influence how people process information

Fear and anger related to the 2016 presidential election and climate change had different effects on the way conservatives and liberals processed information, according to research published in Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly.

“As a risk communication scholar, I have devoted much of my research attention in recent years to studying how to communicate better to the American public about climate change impacts,” said Janet Yang, the paper’s lead author and an associate professor in the Department of Communication at the University at Buffalo.

“This topic caught our attention because the 2016 presidential election was highly contentious and divisive, which has a lot of commonality with the challenges we experience when communicating about climate change. We thought it would be interesting to study the election as a risk topic and contrasts it with climate change to see how the U.S. public deal with information about these two issues.”

The researchers collected data from two independent surveys of about 500 U.S adults from October 6 to October 23, 2016. One questionnaire was about the presidential election and the other was about climate change.

The researchers used the Risk Information Seeking and Processing Model, a comprehensive model that 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. Emotion is critical and information insufficiency is central to the model. The theory argues that people continue processing information until they’ve accomplished their processing goals.

“The highlight of this research is that conservatives and liberals have very different perceptions about potential risks from the election and climate change. These risk perceptions lead to different emotional responses, which subsequently influenced the way in which they dealt with relevant information about these two issues,” Yang told PsyPost.

Liberals reported much higher risk perception, anger, and fear related to climate change than conservatives overall. But both groups scored equally high on these variables when it came to the upcoming election.

Conservatives fearful about the upcoming election reported a greater need for more information. Fear among liberals, on the other hand, was associated with having less perceived knowledge about the election, “perhaps suggesting a sense of despair or a failure to comprehend what was going on in this country,” the researchers said.

When it came to climate change, fearful respondents were less confident about their existing knowledge and reported a greater desire for more information. The association between being fearful of climate change and reporting greater need for more information was strong among conservative respondents, while liberals who were angry when thinking about climate change reported higher perceived knowledge.

The study — like all research — includes some limitations.

“Our samples were not representative of the U.S. population because survey respondents were recruited from the online panel maintained by Qualtrics. However, our samples matched the distribution of the U.S. population on age, gender, race, political affiliation, and household income, so they offered us good insights,” Yang said.

“We also only measured two specific emotions – fear and anger. There may be meaningful differences in other emotions, such as hope, that also influenced information processing among these two groups.”

“Our study offers important insights on how risk perception, emotion, and perceived social norms influence information processing behaviors among liberals and conservatives. Social science researchers should bear these findings in mind and replicate this study in the next election cycle,” Yang added.

The study, “Fearful Conservatives, Angry Liberals: Information Processing Related to the 2016 Presidential Election and Climate Change“, was authored by Janet Z. Yang, Haoran Chu, and LeeAnn Kahlor.