Just how much does our anger impact our judgments? A recent study found that feeling angry increases a person’s preference for dominant-looking leaders in an election, even when the anger has nothing to do with politics. The findings were published in the journal Scientific Reports.
Psychology studies have widely demonstrated that our emotions can impact our judgments and decision-making. One interesting example is that feeling angry during a crisis situation seems to increase a person’s endorsement of punitive and authoritarian measures. This finding may be particularly relevant today, given that anger is increasingly prevalent within politics — trends suggest that politicians often intentionally stir up anger among the public.
The researchers behind the new study wondered whether this effect relies on politically-generated anger, or whether any type of anger might influence a person’s political attitudes. Specifically, the researchers launched a study to explore whether anger generated outside a political context would influence participants’ preferences for political leaders.
“In the current socio-political context of democratic crises and rising populism, our visceral states, feelings and emotions have come to the forefront of the political behavior of citizens and policy makers alike,” explained study author Manos Tsakiris, a psychology professor at Royal Holloway, University of London and director of the Centre for the Politics of Feelings.
“Emotions are now seen as both drivers and targets of politics. And anger features high up the list of political emotions. Lindsey Graham, a senior Republican senator in United States, voiced his concern of a demographic dilution at the 2012 Republican convention when he said, ‘The demographics race we’re losing badly … [Republicans are] not generating enough angry white guys to stay in business for the long term.'”
“One could say that his observation was particularly astute in so far he identified what was the problem and what was needed to be done for the Republican party to come to power: to generate more angry white men. Much of what happened in the polarizing U.S. politics of the Trump presidency reflect the role that anger has played,” Tsakiris said.
“While in 2012 less than half of American voters said they were angry at the other party’s presidential candidate, in 2016 this sentiment was shared by 72 percent of Democrats and 66 percent of Republican voters. Similar trends of rising anger are observed in non-political contexts suggesting to some that we live in an age of anger. We therefore wanted to understand a bit more how anger relates to our political behavior and moreover to examine if non-politically related anger may explain some of the political phenomena that we witness, such as the rise of support for authoritarian leaders.”
In a first experiment, 194 subjects participated in a leader choice task. The participants were presented with pairs of computer generated faces that were manipulated along the dimensions of trustworthiness and dominance. For each pair, subjects had to select which face they would be most likely to vote for as leader in a hypothetical election.
The participants completed the leader choice task twice — once before and once after an anger induction. To induce anger, the participants were asked to solve a series of anagrams, though more than half of them were impossible to solve. After the anagram task, participants were shown a screen with a sad emoji face and a message telling them they had scored below average. Participants then rated their anger, anxiety, and attentiveness.
The results of the experiment revealed that, before the anger induction task, participants were less likely to choose the strong leader (higher dominance, lower trustworthiness) than the non-strong leader (higher trustworthiness, lower dominance). But following the frustrating anagram task, participants with more anger were more likely to choose the strong leader. This was true even after controlling for participants’ baseline leader preferences. Notably, participants’ anxiety levels did not affect their preferences on the leader choice task, suggesting a specific relationship between anger and political preferences.
In a second experiment, the researchers replicated these results among a larger sample of 647 participants. Moreover, a supplemental study revealed that an anger induction did not impact participants’ judgments of the “successfulness” of faces, suggesting that the anger induction was specifically influencing judgments of political leadership.
The authors discuss possible reasons why anger might influence leader preferences. For one, anger might trigger a temporary state of aggression, which then shifts a person’s preferences toward an aggressive leader. Alternatively, it could be that angry people gravitate toward leaders who are also angry, believing that these leaders are better able to represent them. Either way, the current findings suggest that this anger does not have to occur within a political context but can be based on momentary experiences which are unrelated to politics.
“The emotions we experience shape our political decisions, even if these emotions are not directly related to political issues,” Tsakiris told PsyPost. “What our study shows is that non-politically related anger can bias people into supporting stronger-looking leaders that in the history of politics are associated with more authoritarian regimes. And our findings links to other studies that have shown how support for stronger looking leaders correlates with more socially conservative attitudes and often with support for authoritarian measures.”
“At a time of increased polarization, anger and rage seem to be at the center stage of many public discourses and we should therefore be cautious about how anger is triggered and its consequences. Or as Martin Luther King Jr. observed in 1968, ‘It is not enough for people to be angry – the supreme task is to organize and unite people so that their anger becomes a transforming force.'”
Among limitations, the authors said that it is unclear to what extent the specific emotion of anger impacted participants’ leader preferences. The anger induction may have also evoked other feelings, such as helplessness, which may have influenced the participants’ choice of leaders.
“Our study adds to a growing field of interdisciplinary research on the role of emotions in politics,” Tsakiris said. “More studies are needed to investigate in greater detail the correspondence between specific emotions and distinct political behaviors. For example, we show an effect of non-political anger on political support for stronger looking leaders. Would the same be true for fear? Does non-politically related fear leads to changes in political behavior and if yes in what ways?”
“I am still very intrigued by the idea that people, especially when they find themselves in states of heightened nervousness and stress, when their bodies and minds are dysregulated, may be more susceptible to influence by externally constructed emotional meanings. In other words, what happens if your political leader or party engage in a rhetoric that frames your experience as being an ‘angry’ or a ‘fearful’ or a ‘disgusted’ citizen. Would an emotional prescription (such as ‘you should feel…’) and affect-labelling (such as ‘angry’) function as the context within which people will construct the experience of their emotions and assume that they are angry or fearful and so on, without necessarily being so?”
“Much of our politics assume that people know what they want, or at least that politicians can persuade people about what they want. How would a political life play out that includes the idea that people might not know what they want, because they might not know what they feel, but they can be persuaded that they feel specific emotions? I think the answer to such questions may be important for the future of our democracies.”
The study, “Non‑political anger shifts political preferences towards stronger leaders”, was authored by Klaudia B. Ambroziak, Lou Safra, and Manos Tsakiris.