WashU Expert: Voter turnout differs with anger vs. disgust

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With an estimated $8.5 billion spent on political ads for the 2018 midterm elections, many Americans relished the arrival of election day simply because it meant an end to the torturous and emotionally exhausting barrage of political attack ads and news coverage.

While advertising and campaign rhetoric are intended to get voters to the polls, ongoing social and political psychology research suggests that emotions such as anger, fear, disgust and disillusionment can have dramatically different effects on voter apathy and turnout, said Alan Lambert, associate professor of psychological and brain sciences in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis.


“The idea of anger as a mover and shaker is interesting to consider in the context of politics,” Lambert said. “For one thing, anger — unlike most other emotions, such as fear or sadness — is an ‘approach’ emotion, one that motivates people to act on, and fix, perceived problems in our environment.

“Translate that quality to the realm of politics, and you would expect that anger would be a strong motivator for people to vote. In fact, this is exactly what a recent line of research in our lab shows. Among Democrats and Republicans alike, it is the people who are angry about politics who report the strongest intention to vote. Notably, the anger effect is much stronger than fear.”

It’s no secret that anger may be behind America’s renewed interest in voting, but to truly understand the political consequences of anger, one needs to ask what people are angry about, Lambert said.

“The anger effects we’re finding emerge most clearly when this emotion is relatively focused,” he said. “When anger is focused on a particular set of perceived wrongdoings by a group or a person, this is the feeling that motivates people to vote. When liberals are angry about Republicans, this is when anger swings into action. Likewise, when conservatives are angry about Democrats, ditto. However, a more global sense of anger at ‘politics in general’ generally has the opposite effect.”

Lambert’s own research reveals a fairly large percentage of Americans who are angry about the bickering and contentiousness of politics.

“Here, we find an aspect of anger that is a bit closer to disgust,” he said. “In this case, we find that this anger/disgust brew pushes people away, not toward, voting. Disgust is more akin to other types of negative feelings: Unlike anger, disgust is an avoidance emotion.”

‘When liberals are angry about Republicans, this is when anger swings into action. Likewise, when conservatives are angry about Democrats, ditto. However, a more global sense of anger at “politics in general” generally has the opposite effect.’

Alan Lambert

The news media has focused a lot of attention on the intense anger that liberals feel toward President Donald Trump and the “Trump agenda.” Lambert found plenty of evidence of this in his own work. This raises a question: If liberals were so angry, why wasn’t there a bigger “blue wave” in this year’s midterm?

Democrats took back the House, but why didn’t they take back the Senate, too? Several factors are responsible here, but here’s one clue: Turns out, conservatives are really angry as well. For example, one of the more common responses that Lambert found among conservatives is anger towards liberals for mocking the president, and a feeling that their voices are not being heard by media elites (read: major news outlets other than Fox News).

Bottom line: Anger will motivate everyone to vote regardless of their partisan leanings, provided that it is focused on one or more specific instances of perceived injustice.

“Most people intuitively regard anger as a deeply unpleasant feeling that should be managed and controlled. Or, better yet, not to be experienced at all,” Lambert said. “As counterintuitive as this may seem however, anger also has some strong upsides. This is particularly true when we look more closely at the dynamics of justice. When people perceive an injustice in the world, anger supplies people with the motivational ‘push’ to rectify perceived injustices and motivates them to do something about such infractions.

“If it weren’t for anger, we would observe injustices in a relatively passive way,” he said. “Stated another way, anger is the opposite of apathy.

“Of course, different people see the world in different ways: The kinds of injustices that liberal see — and hence, what makes them angry — is very different from that of conservatives. So both groups see injustice, and both are angry. But they see different injustices, and hence they are angry about different things. This ends up motivating them in different ways, including who they end up voting for.”

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