Fear and Loathing in the Voting Booth

A new study should raise Democrats' midterm hopes.

With many Democrats nervous that voters' anger and fear over health-care reform will bring the GOP gains of dozens of congressional seats in November (though see a contrary view here), it may seem as if the Democrats' challenge is clear: do everything possible to defuse the anger and ease the anxiety. But the emerging science of the role of emotions in voting suggests a very different conclusion. In a paper posted on the Web site of the journal Psychological Science, and scheduled for an upcoming print issue, scientists describe a study suggesting that angry voters rely on vague, general information in a way that makes them ripe for persuasion by vague feel-good ads that gloss over a candidate's record, while fear may make voters put real effort into ascertaining candidates' positions on issues and vote for those they agree with.

The dominant role that emotions play in voters' decisions is by now well accepted, as I described in a story during the 2008 presidential campaign, with most experts arguing that fear and anxiety are the strongest emotions in terms of their ability to drive decisions in the voting booth. Anger, according to the consensus (as I described in this story), is a close second, but second nonetheless. As psychologist Drew Westen (author of the 2007 book The Political Brain) told me then, "The skillful use of fear is unmatched in leading to enthusiasm for one candidate and causing voters to turn away from another."

The civic-minded often lament that when voters are driven by emotions rather than reason, they make stupid choices. (I leave it to you to figure out the ideological bent of most of those making this argument, but suffice it to say that it was trotted out quite vigorously after the 2004 election.) Science, however, doesn't support the argument that emotion-driven decisions are thoughtless, stupid decisions. When people are afraid, found a 2001 study, they seek out more information and process details better; that fits with the finding that anxiety and fear motivate people to learn, as a 2008 study found, which should in turn make them better-informed voters. On the flip side, when people are angry they're less careful about how they think, and they tend to rely on cognitive shortcuts, or heuristics, found a 1994 study. That makes them ripe for manipulation by campaign ads that push emotional hot buttons.

Based on these and other studies, graduate student Michael Parker and psychology professor Linda Isbell of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, predicted that fear would cause people to base their votes on the details of candidates' positions and other qualities, but anger would make them rely on general criteria, such as party loyalty.

In their experiment, the scientists first had 113 volunteers write about an experience that made them either angry or fearful. The volunteers then read online information—including their positions on 12 issues—about two Democratic candidates in a primary election for the Massachusetts state Senate. (The candidates were fictitious, but the volunteers were told they were real.) The candidates agreed on nine issues, and the general information made them sound equally qualified. Then the volunteers voted, and later indicated how much they agreed with their guy's positions on the 12 issues (from affirmative action to health-care reform) and how important those issues were to them.

As predicted, the voters who felt fearful spent more time searching out information than angry voters did (almost seven minutes vs. five). Fearful voters also made their choice based on how much they agreed with the candidate's positions. In contrast, for angry voters "there was no connection between their agreement with the candidate's positions and their vote decision," says Parker. "They just went with the general information," such as education level and experience.

This suggests that fearful voters base their decision on issues, but angry voters base their decision on general criteria. As a result, suggests Isbell, anger would tend to give incumbents an advantage when people have a generally positive feeling about them. But if voters' general feeling is negative—as in a "throw the bums out" anti-Congress sentiment that doesn't distinguish between one incumbent and another—then the incumbent is in trouble, with the result that inciting fear and simultaneously soothing anger might be the best strategy for an incumbent.

So what might this mean for November? First there's the standard caveat that an artificial lab situation doesn't translate perfectly into real life. But Dems who worry that their health-care vote—for or against—will hurt them in the midterm elections need to assess whether voters are angry at them (they hate the whole idea, they hate Washington, they think we're turning into France—or Bolshevik Russia) or fearful (that the insurance they have and like will change, that they won't be able to get a doctor's appointment, that the national debt will mean they'll never collect Social Security). Fearful voters can be swayed with more information; indeed, Democrats hope that as voters learn the truth about the health-care law (what, no death panels?), they'll like what they see. Angry voters aren't going to listen; to reach them, appeals to party or other generalities are the best strategy. If Dems can tailor their message to the mood of the audience, they might do better than most pundits are predicting.