Fear, Anger In 2016 Election Colored Political Issues Differently For Liberals & Conservatives, Study Suggests

BUFFALO, N.Y. — Anger and fear over the 2016 presidential election impacted the way conservatives and liberals processed information about the race, as well as claims made about climate change during the campaign, suggests a study by researchers at the University of Buffalo.

The study shows that some emotional underpinnings of political ideology motivated how the entire electorate in 2016 processed information about the race and about global warming.

“This has important implications for how political dialogue is shaped,” says lead author Janet Yang, an expert in the communication of risk information related to science, health and the environment, in a statement. “It’s not just what the candidates are saying; it’s also how we communicate with one another.”

Yang and her team wanted to find out if risk perception and the emotional responses to that perceived risk, which, in this case, were fear and anger, impacted the processing of information depending on individuals’ political stances. It’s something that can be seen in the way media outlets often convey climate change to their readers or viewers.

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“In climate change coverage, I think journalists often use language or images that have emotional implications, like the lonely polar bear floating on ice, which could elicit different responses for different people,” says Yang. “But if we’re able to talk about these issues with the emotional component in mind, then we’re more likely to get people to move toward collective action.”

Researchers used results from two surveys polling 500 adults in the weeks leading up to the 2016 presidential election. One questionnaire asked participants about the election, the other focused on climate change.

They found that conservatives who displayed some fear as the election neared were more likely to seek out information, particularly media coverage and conversations among pundits. The same reactions occurred for liberals who reacted to climate change with higher levels of fear. Anger didn’t impact the way voters processed information as much as fear did, but the study found liberals who felt angry when thinking about climate change reported higher perceived knowledge of the subject.

“Fear and anger had very different influences on information-processing strategies,” says Yang. “The more we think about political speech, the more we need to study and monitor the emotions related to it more carefully. Emotional reactions have consequences that should be explored.”

The study is published in the journal Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly.

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