Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


Anger, Politics and the Wisdom of Uncertainty

• May 16, 2011 • 4:00 AM

Angry citizens, new research confirms, are motivated citizens. But they are not motivated to seek out new information. But anxious citizens do.

To say that these are angry political times is perhaps to state the obvious. Commentators and analysts bemoan the lost civility, wondering what is to be done. But here’s something hopeful: New understanding of how emotions operate in politics might help us to better manage these emotions as a society.

The first thing to know about anger is where it comes from. Research suggests it begins with a threat (in these political times, say, rising economic insecurity). But whether it gets translated into anger depends on a few things.

First, it matters how the threat is described. If there’s somebody or even some institution to blame, it turns out people are much more likely to get angry.

In a paper titled “Fight or Flight? When Political Threats Arouse Public Anger and Fear” (presented at a recent conference but yet unpublished), University of Michigan political science professors Ted Brader and Nicholas Valentino and University of Memphis political science professor Eric W. Groenendyk report on experiments in which they found that respondents react differently to fictitious news reports on outsourcing and a viral outbreak. News articles that identify individuals and organizations as the culprits generate significantly more anger than those that ascribe it to impersonal causes. Without someone to blame, respondents mostly just grow fearful and anxious.

Anger is also more likely to arise when individuals feel as though they have some control over the situation — that they have a sense of political efficacy, and the resources and experience to know how to get involved in the first place. Again, without a feeling of control, fear predominates.

This matters, because people act differently when they are angry as opposed to when they are simply afraid or anxious.

For one, anger tends to inspire individuals to engage in more political activities than they would otherwise. “The one thing that seems particularly true about anger is that it is powerfully mobilizing,” said Brader. “It’s a very high-energy emotion.”

In a recent Journal of Politics article titled “Election Night’s Alright for Fighting: The Role of Emotions in Political Participation,” Brader, Groenendyk, Valentino and two other colleagues (Michigan political scientist Vincent L. Hutchings and Michigan doctoral student Krysha Gregorowicz) reported on experiments and crunched American National Election Studies data to show that when citizens get angry, they get active.

In an experimental manipulation, the researchers used “an emotional induction task” — asking participants to recall and write about an experience that made them either angry, anxious or enthusiastic. After the manipulation, subjects were given questions about their intention to participate in politics. Anger inducement boosted intention to participate by one-third of an act out of five possible acts; anxiety and enthusiasm had no effect.

Similarly, survey data on citizen self-reports of anger are predictive of campaign participation, whereas fear and enthusiasm are not. In particular, voters who report anger are much more likely to engage in what political scientists describe as “costly” activities (because they require extra resources): attending rallies, donating money, volunteering for campaigns.

“Anger gets people engaged,” said Brader. “There’s a tendency among scholars and others to say that things like negative advertising are bad. But our paper points out that negative emotions like anger can bring people out and get people more involved. So the consequences aren’t all bad.”

And Groenendyk notes: “If anger is on your side, and it’s mobilizing people to get involved, anger can be a great thing.”

A particular danger of anger seems to be closed-mindedness. Research finds that when citizens get angry, they close themselves off to alternative views and redouble their sense of conviction in their existing views. Fear and anxiety, on the other hand, seem to promote openness to alternative viewpoints and a willingness to compromise.

“Fear alerts you that something is amiss in your environment and draws your attention and says you should consider your action,” said Groenendyk. “Anger tends to move people beyond that and suggests to them to invest resources in participation and pursue riskier strategies that might cost them something.”

The research also shows the stronger your partisan identity the more likely you are to get angry. In many respects, this becomes a self-sustaining feedback loop in which anger deepens the grooves of activism, and the habits and confidence of political engagement that follow lead citizens to get angrier even more easily in the future.

There are also additional dangers. “Anger pushes people in directions that are punitive and aggressive,” said Brader. “That can be appropriate in its time and place. If somebody attacks America, it’s good to have the capability to mobilize Americans or to get people to fight.

“But anger can be an issue if it’s creating motivations to lash out. Does it stop at just spreading leaflets or voting? Or does it extend to punching opponents or throwing a brick. Politicians might be unleashing it for their own purposes, but it’s unleashing a powerful force that’s hard to control.”

Historically, anger in politics has gone up and down depending on who is in power. In “Election Night’s Alright For Fighting” the authors charted feelings of political anger between 1980 and 2004 (the research was done before the 2008 numbers). Anger toward the Democratic candidates peaked in 1980 and 1996; anger toward a Republican candidate peaked in 1984, 1992, and especially 2004.

Not surprisingly, these were all years in which an incumbent of that party was running for re-election. “Incumbents have a record and so they can be blamed,” said Groenendyk.

And blame, of course, is a pre-requisite for anger. One can almost be sure anger will be widespread wherever we look 2012.

In many respects, anger and fear in politics pose a delicate tension between competing democratic values. On the one hand, anger promotes what many observers see as civic virtues of increased participation, but it also tends to close people off from new information, to drive people to their respective sides and to encourage aggressive and punitive actions — all hallmarks of increased political polarization.

Anger also arises out of and promotes a politics of blame, but a politics of blame (which we tend not to like) is sometimes hard to disentangle from a politics of accountability (which we tend to like).

Alternately, a political culture with less accountability and fewer habits of participation would produce more pure anxiety, which research suggests would lead people to seek out more alternative sources of information and also be more willing to embrace compromise (which we also like).

Perhaps the best we can hope for among politicians and commentators is more self-awareness of the consequences of how they describe the world, particularly in how they ascribe blame. But for those who hope for more compromise and thoughtfulness among the public, maybe the answer is to spend more time acknowledging the complexities and ambiguities of public problems, trying to reduce certainty and blaming that leads to anger.

If the goal is to get people to think more carefully, maybe a little bit of the anxiety of uncertainty might not be such a bad thing after all.

Sign up for the free Miller-McCune.com e-newsletter.

“Like” Miller-McCune on Facebook.

Follow Miller-McCune on Twitter.

Add Miller-McCune.com news to your site.

Subscribe to Miller-McCune

Lee Drutman
Lee Drutman, Ph.D., teaches at the University of California Washington D.C. Semester Program. He has worked as a staff writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Providence Journal. His work has also appeared in the Los Angeles Times, New York Newsday, Slate, Politico and the American Prospect.

More From Lee Drutman

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 24 • 4:00 PM

We Need to Normalize Drug Use in Our Society

After the disastrous misconceptions of the 20th century, we’re returning to the idea that drugs are an ordinary part of life experience and no more cause addiction than do other behaviors. This is rational and welcome.


October 24 • 2:00 PM

A Letter to the Next Attorney General: Fix Presidential Pardons

More than two years ago, a series showed that white applicants were far more likely to receive clemency than comparable applicants who were black. Since then, the government has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on a study, but the pardons system remains unchanged.


October 24 • 12:00 PM

What Makes You So Smart, Middle School Math Teacher?

Noah Davis talks to Vern Williams about what makes middle school—yes, middle school—so great.


October 24 • 10:00 AM

Why DNA Is One of Humanity’s Greatest Inventions

How we’ve co-opted our genetic material to change our world.


October 24 • 8:00 AM

What Do Clowns Think of Clowns?

Three major players weigh in on the current state of the clown.


October 24 • 7:13 AM

There Is No Surge in Illegal Immigration

The overall rate of illegal immigration has actually decreased significantly in the last 10 years. The time is ripe for immigration reform.


October 24 • 6:15 AM

Politicians Really Aren’t Better Decision Makers

Politicians took part in a classic choice experiment but failed to do better than the rest of us.


October 24 • 5:00 AM

Why We Gossip: It’s Really All About Ourselves

New research from the Netherlands finds stories we hear about others help us determine how we’re doing.


October 24 • 2:00 AM

Congratulations, Your City Is Dying!

Don’t take population numbers at face value.


October 23 • 4:00 PM

Of Course Marijuana Addiction Exists

The polarized legalization debate leads to exaggerated claims and denials about pot’s potential harms. The truth lies somewhere in between.


October 23 • 2:00 PM

American Companies Are Getting Way Too Cozy With the National Security Agency

Newly released documents describe “contractual relationships” between the NSA and U.S. companies, as well as undercover operatives.


October 23 • 12:00 PM

The Man Who’s Quantifying New York City

Noah Davis talks to the proprietor of I Quant NY. His methodology: a little something called “addition.”


October 23 • 11:02 AM

Earliest High-Altitude Settlements Found in Peru

Discovery suggests humans adapted to high altitude faster than previously thought.


October 23 • 10:00 AM

The Psychology of Bribery and Corruption

An FBI agent offered up confidential information about a political operative’s enemy in exchange for cash—and they both got caught. What were they thinking?


October 23 • 8:00 AM

Ebola News Gives Me a Guilty Thrill. Am I Crazy?

What it means to feel a little excited about the prospect of a horrific event.


October 23 • 7:04 AM

Why Don’t Men Read Romance Novels?

A lot of men just don’t read fiction, and if they do, structural misogyny drives them away from the genre.


October 23 • 6:00 AM

Why Do Americans Pray?

It depends on how you ask.


October 23 • 4:00 AM

Musicians Are Better Multitaskers

New research from Canada finds trained musicians more efficiently switch from one mental task to another.


October 22 • 4:00 PM

The Last Thing the Women’s Movement Needs Is a Heroic Male Takeover

Is the United Nations’ #HeForShe campaign helping feminism?


October 22 • 2:00 PM

Turning Public Education Into Private Profits

Baker Mitchell is a politically connected North Carolina businessman who celebrates the power of the free market. Every year, millions of public education dollars flow through Mitchell’s chain of four non-profit charter schools to for-profit companies he controls.


October 22 • 12:00 PM

Will the End of a Tax Loophole Kill Off Irish Business and Force Google and Apple to Pay Up?

U.S. technology giants have constructed international offices in Dublin in order to take advantage of favorable tax policies that are now changing. But Ireland might have enough other draws to keep them there even when costs climb.


October 22 • 10:00 AM

Veterans in the Ivory Tower

Why there aren’t enough veterans at America’s top schools—and what some people are trying to do to change that.


October 22 • 8:00 AM

Our Language Prejudices Don’t Make No Sense

We should embrace the fact that there’s no single recipe for English. Making fun of people for replacing “ask” with “aks,” or for frequently using double negatives just makes you look like the unsophisticated one.


October 22 • 7:04 AM

My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.


October 22 • 6:00 AM

How We Form Our Routines

Whether it’s a morning cup of coffee or a glass of warm milk before bed, we all have our habitual processions. The way they become engrained, though, varies from person to person.


Follow us


Politicians Really Aren’t Better Decision Makers

Politicians took part in a classic choice experiment but failed to do better than the rest of us.

Earliest High-Altitude Settlements Found in Peru

Discovery suggests humans adapted to high altitude faster than previously thought.

My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.

That Cigarette Would Make a Great Water Filter

Clean out the ashtray, add some aluminum oxide, and you've (almost) got yourself a low-cost way to remove arsenic from drinking water.

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they're motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.