Ryan Martin Ph.D.

All the Rage

Anger Is a Swing State

Why elections can so easily bring out the anger in all of us

Posted Oct 19, 2016

With the presidential debates in full swing, we are no strangers to the emotions associated with them.  Like all elections, the presidential election has brought a lot of anger and disappointment for many voters. In light of all the rage, online and elsewhere, it seems like a good time to talk about why people get so angry over politics.

At the heart of it, people get angry about politics for the same reason they get angry about anything.  They interpret the political process or the outcome as negative, unfair, unjustified, or blameworthy.  When a candidate says something they don’t agree with, they interpret it as unreasonable.  When they find out that their friend supports a candidate they dislike, they interpret it as a disruption of their friendship.

Even though anger over politics comes from the same basic principles as other anger, there are a few reasons why politics, in particular, can lead to such intense anger:

Exaggerated Claims: It’s well known that politicians tend to make exaggerated claims about their accomplishments or their opponent’s positions.  Those claims are often designed with the explicit purpose of making people angry (e.g., “my opponent voted for the largest tax increase in history,” or “my opponent wants to dismantle social security”).  Thus, it isn’t surprising that those who believe the claims respond with frustration.  Meanwhile, it’s likely that those who don’t believe them respond with anger over what they perceive as dishonesty.

Selective Attention: Related to these exaggerated claims, voters seem to have a habit of only paying attention to the information that supports their perspective.  They tend to believe the claims of the candidate they endorse and to perceive the claims of the other as being dishonest.  They then look only for evidence that confirms their positions and ignore the data that refutes them.  The Internet has made it all the easier to only pay attention to confirming evidence.  If people believe a certain thing, they can usually find a website to validate their position.  It’s also made the spread of these exaggerated claims even easier because anyone can post just about anything on the Internet or send it out via email without regard for truth or accuracy.  Ultimately, what this means is that people will dichotomize by lumping the candidates and their supporters into groups (e.g., completely right vs. completely wrong) and fail to understand how the other side of an issue may have some validity.

Feelings of Isolation: Another interesting aspect of politics is that people find out, in a way they don’t normally, how many other people in the city, state, or country agree or disagree with them.  When one is on the losing side of an election, it’s easy to feel isolated (e.g., “I can’t believe there are so many people out there who don’t get it”).  That feeling of isolation can spawn feelings of resentment and frustration.

Language Use Surrounding Politics: For a very long time, we have used war or combat as a metaphor for elections. This is evident in the language we use to describe them (e.g., battleground states, campaigns, taking shots, firing back, attack ads, gaining and losing ground).  Such language is not meaningless.  How we talk about something is a reflection of how we think of it, and if we talk about elections in aggressive terms, we likely come to think of them as aggressive and violent experiences.   Something as simple as a change in the way we discuss or describe politics could maybe have an effect on how we view it. Instead of a fight, it could be a race or even a conversation.

Anger as Appropriate: Sometimes, what we perceive as an anger problem might be more of an impulse control/aggression problem.  There is actually a place for healthy and productive anger in the political process.  If we think of anger as a valuable tool in alerting us to problems and motivating us to confront those problems, it’s perfectly reasonable to get angry when elected officials and candidates act irresponsibly, endorse positions that may harm us, etc.  The decisions that are made by elected officials affect many people in very real ways.  Consequently, some are affected quite negatively and, potentially, unfairly by those decisions (e.g., decreased funding to certain programs, increased taxes) and an angry response might be both reasonable and healthy.

It is also fair to acknowledge that politicians have a vested interest in making us angry, as shown by Dr. Timothy Ryan of the University of Michigan, who took an interesting look at what makes us click on advertisements associated with politics in his 2012 article, "What Makes Us Click? Demonstrating Incentives for Angry Discourse with Digital-Age Field Experiments." He was interested in look at how anxiety and anger evoking ads might make one more or less likely to click on it.

Although fear and anger are both used in political campaigns, this study shows that anger better motivated participants to click on and read political ads. In this experiment, Ryan exposed Internet users to a randomly assigned political advertisement during the course of routine web browsing. They either received a neutral text, a text evoking anxiety, or a text evoking anger.

The results confirm the idea that politicians have a strong incentive to use emotionally charged communication. It was found the anger-inducing advertisement more than doubled the click rate of the political advertisement.  From a financial perspective, a campaign should use anger in their ads to increase the impact of those ads.

With a better idea of where all this political anger comes from, one can take precautions to reduce the negative feelings associated with the electron. A great anger management tip is to start your day in an uplifting way, to try to avoid the use of social media or even television. During the election season, our news, whether via television, newspapers, or our social media feeds, tend to be full of angering information related to politics.  Waking up to these could put you in a negative mood right from the start. Avoiding this can allow you to start your day with reduced negative stimulation. Along these lines, try not to seek out things that you know will anger you.  While people should try to stay informed, they can also find ways not to invite angering stimuli into their lives.

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