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Which Emotions Have the Most Impact on Voters?

Voters are driven by emotions, and negative emotions may have the most impact!

emotions, happy, sad

Most Voters Are Driven by Emotions, Which Include Emotional Reactions to the Issues.

I often hear complaints about the fact that so many voters are deciding who to vote for based on emotion rather than rational responses to the issues. However, this is not an all-or-nothing situation with some voters making decisions purely for rational reasons while others decide only for emotional reasons. The truth is that just about all voters, including the most well-informed amongst us, have emotional responses to issues. If we didn’t, we probably wouldn’t bother to vote.

If You Care Deeply About an Issue, You are Also Emotional About It!

When we think about the issues that matter most to us, we are likely to have intense emotional reactions to different stances on these topics. If you care about gay marriage, you will be happy imagining a time where any gay couple has the same legal rights as any straight couple. If you are against gay marriage, you probably smile at the thought of a world where no gay couple can get married. However, emotions may be even stronger on the negative side. For example, if you are pro-life, the idea of legalized abortions being available to anyone with an unwanted pregnancy probably infuriates you. In contrast, if you are pro-choice, hearing politicians talking about abolishing Roe v. Wade is likely to make you very upset. You can take just about any issue you are care deeply about, and thinking about an outcome that goes against what you hope for will likely get you very upset. That is not so bad as emotions, and particularly negative emotions like fear and anger are what drive many people to volunteer, make donations and, of course, vote!

worried face

Negative Emotional Reactions May Have the Most Influence. Why?

Generally, avoiding pain motivates people more than seeking pleasure (Tversky and Kahneman 1991). Most voters find it intensely painful to imagine their least favorite candidate winning the election.They could experience disappointment, worry, fear, sadness, anger or any combination of these if the candidate they don't want in the White House wins the election. Such emotions are very effective in motivating people to vote. Indeed, when I hear people on both sides talk about the candidates, I notice that people seem far more heated and passionate when they talk about the candidate they do not plan to vote for than when they talk about preferred candidate. The candidates themselves both seem to be aware of this. My favorite example of using negative feelings about the opponent to encourage voting came from a speech President Obama gave in late August, after crowds had just booed something about his opponent, Obama famously said, “Don’t boo. Vote!" (click here to watch this portion of his speech).

The Media Often Stresses the Negatives More Than The Positives.

A recent New York Times article repoted that 80% of ads put out for Obama and 85% of ads put out for Romney have been negative. If we pay attention to social media, partucularly Facebook, Twitter and Google+, there seem to be far more negative comments about each candidate than positive comments. Similarly, in the mainstream media, it seems that we hear far more criticism of Obama than praise for Romney on Fox News and far more negative comments on Romney than praise for Obama on MSNBC. Even CNN (considered to be relatively neutral) seems to pay more attention to the political gaffes of each candidate than to their political triumphs. It could be that the gaffes are more interesting, or perhaps there are more gaffes than triumphs to cover. However, if you add to the mix the many comedians who have either covered the election or impersonated one or more of the candidates, you end up with a strong sense that we are paying more attention to the perceived weaknesses and even failings of each candidate than to their strengths or successes. That may not be a bad thing. Indeed, since avoiding pain is a stronger motivator than seeking pleasure, a focus on the negative side of each candidate may mean more people actually show up to vote!

Emotions Aren’t Always About Self-Interest!

When we think about the issues that matter most to us, we are likely to have intense emotional reactions to different stances on these topics. It is important to note that many of us get emotional about issues, even if we are not personally affected by them. For example, quite a few voters who are no longer fertile are still very committed to female reproductive rights. There are also many heterosexual voters who are passionate about promoting equal rights for gay Americans, and white males who are committed to affirmative action. There are even very wealthy Americans making donations to political candidates who will increase their own taxes. This includes the two wealthiest people in the country, Bill Gates and Warren Buffet. Similarly, many voters have secure jobs with excellent health insurance benefits, but are still very emotionally committed to public options for healthcare.

Bill Gates and Warren Buffet

On the other side of the political divide, there are Americans without health insurance who are passionately against having a public option or any other type of healthcare reform (e.g. “ObamaCare”). In short, when Americans vote, volunteer or make contributions to a campaign, it is often for emotional reasons, not because it will improve their personal bottom line.

So Embrace All Your Emotions, Even the Negative Ones! Then, Go Vote!

Emotion often gets a bad rap. The fact that emotion drives much of voting is not a bad thing. Emotion drives the passion that leads people to volunteer, make personal donations to causes they care about, and deal with the hassle of voting. So don’t feel bad about not being purely rational. Get emotional, get involved, and vote!



Tversky Amos and Kahneman Daniel (1991), "Loss Aversion in Riskless Choice: A Reference-Dependent Model." The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Vol. 106, No. 4 (November), pp. 1039-1061.

Hunt, Albert R. (October 14, 2012). "Media Share Blame for Negative Ads," The New York Times (Bloomberg News).

Prior Posts on the Psychology of the 2012 Presidential Election (click to view)

The Upside of Voter Irrationality: Irrational Voters Can be a Good Thing

Which Debates Have the Most Impact & Why We Watch Debates

Why Romney was Wrong about that 47%. Some May Actually Vote For Him