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Online emotional appeals and political participation: The effect of candidate affect on mass behavior

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The role that emotions play in shaping mass political behavior is increasingly well researched. This study refocuses the debate to explore the effect that the emotions expressed by candidates (target affect) through new media have on participation, rather than the effect of emotions felt by voters (observer affect). A unique experiment embedded in a nationally representative online survey demonstrates that appeals invoking target affect can strongly increase citizens' political participation both online and offline. Contrary to fears that the use of emotions by political elites will agitate the least knowledgeable citizens, however, the results demonstrate that it is the most politically-engaged citizens who are mobilized by such appeals. These findings have significant implications for our understanding of the participatory consequences of emotional political messages on the Internet.
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new media & society
15(7) 1132 –1150
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DOI: 10.1177/1461444812466717
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Online emotional appeals and
political participation: The
effect of candidate affect on
mass behavior
Philip Edward Jones, Lindsay H Hoffman
and Dannagal G Young
University of Delaware, USA
Abstract
The role that emotions play in shaping mass political behavior is increasingly well
researched. This study refocuses the debate to explore the effect that the emotions
expressed by candidates (target affect) through new media have on participation, rather
than the effect of emotions felt by voters (observer affect). A unique experiment
embedded in a nationally representative online survey demonstrates that appeals
invoking target affect can strongly increase citizens’ political participation both online
and offline. Contrary to fears that the use of emotions by political elites will agitate
the least knowledgeable citizens, however, the results demonstrate that it is the most
politically-engaged citizens who are mobilized by such appeals. These findings have
significant implications for our understanding of the participatory consequences of
emotional political messages on the Internet.
Keywords
Emotional appeals, Internet, political participation, target affect
How do voters respond to appeals for support from emotional candidates? In recent
years, the media have been quick to declare that emotional politicians have profound
effects on citizens’ support. After then-Senator Hillary Clinton cried during a primary
campaign event in New Hampshire, the media rushed to analyze how her support among
voters would be impacted (Friedman, 2008). On the Republican side, pundits worried
Corresponding author:
Philip Edward Jones, Department of Political Science and International Relations, University of Delaware, 347
Smith Hall, Newark, DE 19716, USA.
Email: pejones@udel.edu
466717NMS15710.1177/1461444812466717new media & societyJones et al.
2012
Article
Jones et al. 1133
that John McCain’s “angry old man” persona would end up turning off voters (Hillyer,
2008). As The Washington Post put it in the final month of the campaign, ‘it’s never good
this close to the election to show anger or even flashes of a temper’ (Cillizza, 2008). And
the conventional wisdom immediately after the election was that a surge in participation
could be directly linked to Barack Obama’s message of “hope” about the future (Bohan,
2008). In this popular view, campaign appeals from emotional candidates can have direct
consequences for electoral participation. And, given the increasing use of narrowly tar-
geted and technologically advanced online appeals, exploring the impact these emotional
appeals can have is of increasing relevance to modern politics (Vaccari, 2008).
The academic literature on the role of emotions in mass behavior has, however,
focused almost exclusively on how citizens’ own emotional states guide their participa-
tion (see, e.g., Marcus (2000) and Glaser and Salovey (1998) for comprehensive reviews
of the literature). From these studies, we know that experiencing different emotional
states can have a wide range of effects on voters. For example, research has shown that
feelings of anger prompt citizens to engage in greater electoral participation (Valentino
et al., 2011), while feelings of anxiety lead to an increased interest in politics in general
(Huddy et al., 2007), and positive feelings such as hope or enthusiasm increase aware-
ness of one’s environment and confidence that preferred outcomes will occur (Brader
and Valentino, 2007; Just et al., 2007).
However, we know surprisingly little about how mass behavior is affected when can-
didates, not voters, are the ones who express emotion. In this study, we join the debate
about the role of affect in mass behavior by exploring the effects of what Glaser and
Salovey (1998) call the “overlooked” and “neglect[ed]” study of target affect. Rather
than asking how emotional voters participate in politics, we ask how voters participate in
politics on behalf of emotional appeals from candidates. We focus in particular on which
citizens are most likely to be mobilized in this way, illuminating when and how different
voters are affected by emotional messages from candidates.
Using a randomized experiment embedded in a nationally-representative online sur-
vey, we demonstrate that candidates who appeal to voters through the use of emotions are
rewarded with increased support across a range of different types of participation. The
effect is not equal across all citizens, however: rather, the effect of these emotional appeals
varies systematically with voters’ prior exposure to elite appeals via news media. Contrary
to fears that the disengaged masses might be most susceptible to emotional appeals, we
show that it is in fact the most, not least, engaged citizens who are most affected.
Emotional citizens and political participation
Understanding how emotions affect political behavior is critical to our normative and
empirical understandings of democratic decision-making and political participation.
Although traditionally seen as in conflict with rational models of voter behavior, contem-
porary research views emotion as complementary to, not in competition with, reason
(Nabi, 1999). As such, concerns that emotions might lead voters to ignore their own
interests and behave irrationally have been replaced by a more nuanced understanding of
the ways in which emotions shape citizen participation (Marcus, 2000).
1134 new media & society 15(7)
Drawing on neuroscientific research, Affective Intelligence Theory (AIT) shows that
emotions have a preconscious effect on political behavior through the activation of dif-
ferent human biological systems (MacKuen et al., 2007; Marcus et al., 2000). Positive
emotions such as enthusiasm, pride, or hope signal that the dispositional system is active,
prompting individuals to rely on heuristics and make routine decisions as they navigate
a familiar world. Feelings of anxiety, on the other hand, signal that the surveillance sys-
tem is active, prompting greater awareness of an unfamiliar environment and a reduced
reliance on habit (MacKuen et al., 2010; Marcus, 2002; Redlawsk et al., 2007).
Activating these different systems has wide-ranging effects on when and how citizens
engage with politics. Affective states predict candidate evaluations (Capelos, 2010) and
political participation (Isbell et al., 2006; Valentino et al., 2011); greater information
seeking (Huddy et al., 2007); feelings of political efficacy (Valentino et al., 2009; Weber,
2007); interest in politics (Marcus et al., 2006); and contemplative and consistent politi-
cal reasoning (Berenbaum et al., 1995). In the realm of specific participatory acts,
Valentino et al. (2011) use various observational and experimental datasets to show the
distinctive effects of discrete emotions. Anger, they find, has a consistently positive
effect on participation, while anxiety and enthusiasm have at times positive, negative,
and null effects across campaign settings.
It would be misguided to conceptualize affect as entirely distinct from rational cogni-
tion (Nabi, 1999). Affective states may be sources of information to individuals in and of
themselves (Lerner and Keltner, 2000, 2001). Schwarz and colleagues label this concep-
tualization as ‘feelings as information,’ and show that individuals may use their feelings
as cognitive evidence on which to base their decisions (Schwarz, 2002; Schwarz and
Clore, 1983). Importantly, some individuals are more likely than others to draw on their
affective state as a cognitive resource. Schwarz (2002) suggests that this process is most
likely when “the feelings seem highly relevant to the judgment at hand . . . when little
other information is available, for example, because the target is unfamiliar . . . and with
increasing task demands and decreasing cognitive resources” (p. 539; see also Isbell
et al., 2006; Ottati et al., 1997). This leaves open the possibility that different individuals
will respond to similar emotional states in different ways, depending on their prior cogni-
tive processing skills and habits.
Emotional candidates and campaign appeals
These studies of the impact of emotion on political behavior all examine observer
affect – how the emotional state of the voter affects their participation. Research on the
effects of target affect – how the emotional state of the person making an appeal for
support affects voter participation – is much less common in the literature (Glaser and
Salovey, 1998). This neglect is surprising, for several reasons. As noted in the intro-
duction, the media are quick to claim that displays of emotion by candidates influence
voters’ decisions. For example, in 2010, journalists and pundits declared the
Republicans’ and the Tea Party’s message of anger at rising government debt regula-
tion to be crucial in increasing participation amongst conservative voters and winning
control of the House (Dunham and Ratcliffe, 2010; Fox News, 2010). Likewise, we
know that campaigns frequently use emotional messages in their appeals for support.
Jones et al. 1135
Research on television advertising has documented the extent to which campaigns
make emotional appeals and the conditions under which they do so (Kaid and Johnston,
2001; Kern, 1989; Rahn and Hirshorn, 1999; Ridout and Searles, 2011).1
Persuasion scholars have tended to study how emotions shape behaviors by focusing
on the message or stimulus. Rooted in the early work of Hovland et al. (1953) and later
extended by Leventhal (1970) and Rogers (1975), this paradigm initially focused on how
fear appeals affected persuasion. According to Hovland’s drive-reduction model, indi-
viduals are motivated to reduce their levels of fear. Any action taken that alleviates
fear, and then reinforces that behavior in response to future fear, appeals. If, however,
the recommended action fails to reduce fear (or heightens it), individuals will not
engage in that behavior when exposed to future fear appeals. Extensions of the model
document a curvilinear relationship between fear appeals and persuasion, as the most
frightening appeals short-circuit the system, resulting in inattention or defensive avoid-
ance. This research led to Rogers’ (1975) proposition that persuasion through fear
appeals depends on three factors: (1) the message recipient’s perception of the severity
of the threat, (2) the message recipient’s perception of his or her vulnerability to said
threat, and finally, (3) that individual’s perception that heeding the recommendations
offered by the message will actually help to remedy the fear. In this way, the emotion
– in this case, fear – is used instrumentally as an indicator of possible threat, and is
responded to accordingly.
Those studies that have investigated the political impact of target affect (emotional
displays by politicians within a political message) suggest that expressions of emotion
can strongly influence responses to politicians. In a series of experiments, Sullivan and
Masters presented study participants with images of political leaders displaying various
emotions commonly used in the AIT inventory, including anger/threat, happiness/reas-
surance, and fear/aversion (Masters and Sullivan, 1989; Sullivan and Masters, 1988).
Responses to the leaders varied depending on the emotions they were shown expressing.
After viewing a happy politician, respondents were more likely to report feeling happier
and more warmly evaluated that figure (Masters and Sullivan, 1989; Sullivan and
Masters, 1988) although those responses were moderated by cultural factors and prior
attitudes towards the politician (McHugo et al., 1985; Way and Masters, 1996). Together,
these studies suggest that voters’ attitudes towards politicians can be powerfully affected
by the emotions they display.
In short, we know a great deal about how observer affect influences political partici-
pation, and we have some evidence on how target affect influences political attitudes.
What is missing is an exploration of how target affect may influence political participa-
tion: this study bridges the literatures on observer and target affect, and presents a broader
understanding of how emotions influence mass politics.
Hypotheses and research questions
Based on the idea that affect can be treated as information, we are inclined to believe that
voters exposed to a display of emotion by candidates are likely to use that information to
infer a greater importance to the appeal. Accordingly, we expect that seeing an emotional
candidate increases voters’ propensity to participate on his behalf:
1136 new media & society 15(7)
H1: Voters will be more willing to participate on behalf of a candidate who expresses
emotion when appealing for their support.
As noted earlier, the literature on observer affect has uncovered significant differ-
ences in the participatory consequences of different emotions. It seems plausible that
there would also be distinct effects of different emotions as displayed by candidates. If
target affect influences participation in the same ways as observer affect does, then vot-
ers exposed to an angry candidate would participate more (in the same way that angry
voters have been shown to; Valentino et al., 2011). Alternatively, voters exposed to an
anxious candidate may engage in information searches and cooperative deliberation (in
the same way that anxious voters have been shown to; MacKuen et al., 2010).
However, there is a lack of evidence on whether a particular target affect has an identi-
cal effect on political behavior as the equivalent observer affect. Indeed, the psychologi-
cal literature stresses the differences between such emotional effects more than their
similarities (Glaser and Salovey, 1998). Rather than adopting specific hypotheses about
the impacts of different target affect, we therefore propose a research question that allows
us to explore potential differences between different types of emotion as expressed by
the candidate (rather than as experienced by the message receiver):
RQ1: Are some types of target affect more likely to increase voter participation than
others?
Voters may use all types of target affect as equivalent information, in which case we
would see no differences between those exposed to, for example, an angry or enthusiastic
candidate, or they may differentiate between emotional states and regard, for example,
anger as more of a ‘call to action’ than enthusiasm. By framing this research question in
broad terms, we are able to explore these possibilities in more detail.
In addition to the overall effects of target affect, we also examine which voters are
most likely to be mobilized by such emotional appeals. As a specific type of elite infor-
mational cue, we expect that citizens will vary in their receptiveness to such appeals,
depending on their prior levels of engagement or sophistication (Zaller, 1992). We are
not the first to explore heterogeneity amongst the electorate in their responses to emo-
tional appeals. The existing literature, however, offers divergent expectations about how
political engagement might influence the effectiveness of emotional appeals.
On the one hand, several studies suggest that emotional appeals are most likely to
sway those who are least engaged or informed. Rooted in the tenets of dual-processing
models of attitude formation (Eagly and Chaiken, 1993; Petty and Cacioppo, 1981),
emotions are often conceptualized as heuristic or peripheral cues on which audiences
rely when processing messages less critically. As such, we would expect those who are
less engaged to be most likely to rely on the cue of a candidate’s affect (Ottati et al.,
1997). As summarized by Levine (2003), “less-educated people are generally more sus-
ceptible to emotional appeals; better-educated audiences are more responsive to rational
appeals” (p. 2).
On the other hand, research indicates that elite emotional cues might be most effec-
tive among the most politically-engaged or informed. For example, Miller (2011)
Jones et al. 1137
shows that politically sophisticated individuals are more likely to be influenced by
their emotions since they have a greater understanding of political affairs and a greater
motivation to act upon their feelings. Similarly, Rudolph et al. (2000) show that highly-
efficacious individuals are most responsive to emotional stimuli since they believe
their participation is likely to be consequential. The act of following an elite emotional
cue requires both political understanding and a motivation to use the cue in a way that
shapes behaviors.
These moderators have distinctive underlying mechanisms. Political attention or
interest alters message-processing through an increased motivation to process to elite
messages; political knowledge or understanding alters depth of message processing
through an increased ability to comprehend the messages themselves. As a result,
research has focused on different operationalizations of the general concept of “political
engagement.” In political communication research, in particular, there has been an
attempt to conceptually untangle the effects of media use and attention from other meas-
ures of “engagement” in an effort to better understand the underlying cognitive mecha-
nism responsible for the moderating effects. These operationalizations have included
news consumption (e.g., Adler and Goggin, 2005; Zukin et al., 2006), attention paid to
political information in the news (e.g., Chaffee and Schleuder, 1986), political interest
(e.g., Zukin et al., 2006), and the frequency and quality of political discussion (e.g.,
Kwak et al., 2005).
This project considers one particular dimension of engagement that we believe is
indicative of a familiarity with the language, imagery and appeals of political commu-
nication: news media use. Consumption of news captures both an individual’s motiva-
tion to seek out political information and a fluency in the vernacular of post-modern
political information – a vernacular that is rife with persuasive appeals, both textual and
visual, rational and emotional. Such “operative knowledge” enables citizens to translate
thoughts, feelings, and values into political goals, goals into political actions, and
actions into political results (Johnson, 2009). This taps into Graber’s (2001) discussion
of online processing models in the context of political opinion formation, as citizens
who frequently tune into political media are the most likely to experience frequent acti-
vation of – and hence resonance with – emotional political appeals. Hence, those most
“fluent” in the language of news media ought to be the best able to translate their
thoughts, feelings, and values into goals and actions:
H2: The effect of emotional appeals will be greatest amongst those with the highest
levels of news media consumption.
Survey data and experimental design
The data for the present research come from a specially commissioned survey of
American adults, selected from Knowledge Networks’ online panel. 1,006 US adults
were randomly sampled in late July and early August of 2010. In order to reach the
goal of at least 1,000 interviews, 1,783 cases were fielded, resulting in a completion
rate of 56%. To adjust for non-response and non-coverage bias in the overall panel,
the data are weighted on the basis of several post-stratification demographic variables
1138 new media & society 15(7)
(gender, age, race, education, region of country, metropolitan area, and prior internet
access).
The survey included a large battery of questions about the respondents’ news con-
sumption in the previous week. Respondents were asked for the number of days in the
past week that they had (1) watched national television news on broadcast networks; (2)
watched local television news program on broadcast networks; (3) watched television
news on cable networks; (4) read a print newspaper; (5) read news on a news organiza-
tion’s site; and (6) read news on a blog or personal site. For each respondent, we calcu-
lated the average number of days they received news from all of these different sources.
This measure thus theoretically ranges from 0 (a respondent who didn’t get news from
any of these sources on any day in the previous week) to 7 (a respondent who got news
from every one of these sources on every day in the previous week). The mean of this
news consumption score is 1.67, with a standard deviation of 1.43. To aid in the presenta-
tion of results, we often split respondents into three groups: ‘low’ news consumers are
the lower third of the distribution (with a score of 1 or less); ‘high’ news consumers in
the upper third (with a score of 2.34 or more); and the rest in a ‘moderate’ consumption
category.
Towards the end of the survey, respondents were shown screenshots of a website for
a candidate they were told was running for political office. We randomly selected a first
and last name from a FEC list of declared congressional candidates as of summer 2010.
The resulting name, ‘Robert Carlson’ was not an existing politician or celebrity, ensuring
respondents would have no information about him other than that we provided. Carlson’s
site (shown in the Online Appendix) was closely modeled on actual candidate sites: a
pre-test among a sample of 72 college students showed that the site reflected their expec-
tations of candidate sites.2
Mimicking actual sites, Carlson’s did not display his partisan affiliation, and focused
on his plan to fix the economy. We chose the valence issue of the economy (rather than a
positional issue such as tax cuts or abortion) because it did not invoke a particular parti-
san or ideological slant and was the subject of most campaign appeals in 2010. We delib-
erately included no other policy issues on the site, so that voters would not be presented
with candidates pushing different policy agendas.
All of our respondents were shown Carlson’s homepage. Some, however, were ran-
domly selected to first see a ‘splash’ page that featured a direct appeal from Carlson to
join his campaign. Respondents were shown “A message from Robert’ that read: ‘I’m
[angry/anxious/hopeful] about where the economy is headed – and I know you are too.
Join me today, and together, we can make America strong again.” The emotion Carlson
expressed in words was accompanied by an image of the candidate with a clear facial
display of the same emotion (actually taken from a stock photo catalog). Figure 1 makes
clear the experimental design of the study: groups 1–3 were shown an emotional appeal
followed by the main site. The fourth, control, group saw only the main site with no
emotional appeal.3
Respondents were then asked a battery of questions about their likelihood of participat-
ing in various ways on Carlson’s behalf. We chose a wide range of ways that citizens
could participate, both traditional and – since the survey was conducted online and the
stimulus shown a website – new, online, modes of participation. Respondents were asked,
Jones et al. 1139
on a 1 to 7 scale that ranged from ‘Extremely unlikely’ to ‘Extremely likely,’ whether they
would consider participating on his behalf. Three of the modes were conventional, offline
forms of participation: voting for Carlson; putting up a Carlson yard sign or bumper
sticker, or wearing a button or shirt; and working for Carlson’s campaign.
We also asked about seven online forms of participation: contributing money online
to his campaign; starting or joining a political group supporting Carlson online, includ-
ing on a social networking site; adding Carlson as a friend, becoming a fan, or ‘liking’
Carlson on a social networking site; posting comments, questions, or information about
Carlson on a website; signing up for online updates from news organizations, candidates,
campaigns, or parties about Carlson; going online to communicate with others about
Carlson using email, instant messaging, or a social networking site; and signing an online
petition on Carlson’s website.
Two scales of likely participation are created from these measures. Online participa-
tion is the mean of each respondent’s response to the online forms of participation.
Offline participation is the same, for the three forms of traditional participation. Both
range from 0 (extremely unlikely to do any of the acts) to 7 (extremely likely to do all of
the acts). We separated these two forms of participation out to explore whether online
emotional appeals have different effects on online behavior compared to ‘conventional’
modes of participation, which may take on different forms (see Hoffman, 2012).4 After
answering these questions, respondents were debriefed and informed that Carlson was
not a candidate actually seeking political office.
Results
We first examine whether mean levels of likely participation vary with the emotion
expressed by our candidate. Figure 2 presents the difference in likely participation
between each experimental condition and the control group. The brackets around each
bar represent 95% confidence intervals. As a quick glance of the Figure reveals, none of
the means were significantly different from the control group mean. Being exposed to an
emotional appeal had no discernible effect on a respondent’s propensity to participate on
the candidate’s behalf.
In the full sample, then, there is little evidence to suggest that emotional appeals influ-
ence citizens’ participatory decisions. These means ignore potential heterogeneity amongst
Figure 1. Experimental design. The control group were shown just the candidate’s home page,
with no splash appeal to participate. The other three groups were each shown a splash appeal
from the candidate before seeing the main site. See the Online Appendix for full images.
1140 new media & society 15(7)
respondents, however. To explore the evidence for H2, Figure 3 shows the effect of each
emotional appeal on participation, by the respondent’s reported news media use. The
average treatment effects are again shown as bars, with 95% confidence intervals shown
as brackets. Effects that are not statistically significant are again shown in light gray;
effects that are significant are shown in dark gray.
The results are strikingly consistent across all three emotions used in the appeals and
for both traditional and online modes of participation: only those respondents who
reported consuming a relatively high amount of news media were influenced by the
emotional appeals. Those who consumed low or moderate levels of news media were
entirely unaffected by the emotional appeals (the largest treatment effect is for the ‘hope-
ful’ message on low media consumers’ propensity to participate offline, but even this
fails to reach standard levels of significance). Consistent with H2, only the most engaged
respondents were likely to consider participating on behalf of an emotional candidate. It
is those who are most fluent in the language of news media that are most capable of
translating exposure to target affect into participation.
To subject this initial finding to a more rigorous test, we turn to multivariate regres-
sion analysis and control for potentially confounding factors. Using the Verba et al.
(1995) ‘Civic Voluntarism Model’ (CVM) as a guide, we estimate Ordinary Least
Squares (OLS) regression models predicting the likelihood of participation on
Carlson’s behalf. In addition to an interaction between the experimental condition and
news consumption, we include several control variables. As politically relevant
resources, we include a measure of the respondent’s highest level of education (coded
as a categorical variable, with those not graduating from high school as the excluded
Figure 2. Difference in means from control group for emotional appeals, for online participation
(left) and offline participation (right). 95% confidence intervals shown as brackets around the
estimates.
Jones et al. 1141
Figure 3. Difference in means from control group in likelihood of participating online (top row) and offline (bottom row), by news media consumption.
95% confidence intervals shown as brackets around the estimates. Light gray bars indicate a difference that is not statistically significant, dark gray bars
one that is significant at the p < .05 level.
1142 new media & society 15(7)
level and high school graduates, those who attended some college, and those with a
BA degree or higher as the other levels) and income (included on a numerical scale
indicating imputed categories). As measures of political engagement, we include the
respondent’s level of efficacy and their strength of partisan identity. Efficacy is meas-
ured as the average agree or disagree response to three statements: (1) “People like me
have no say over what the government does”; (2) “Sometimes politics seems so com-
plicated that a person like me cannot really understand what is going on”; and (3) “I
consider myself well-qualified to participate in politics” (reverse coded). Responses
to the first two statements were coded from 0 to 3 with higher values indicating a
greater level of efficacy. Efficacy is the average of these responses, which also ranges
from 0 to 3. The respondent’s strength of partisanship is coded on a 0–3 scale
(‘Independent’ = 0; ‘Lean partisan’ = 1; ‘Weak partisan’ = 2; ‘Strong partisan’ = 3).
The third ‘pillar’ of the CVM – whether respondents mobilized – is, of course, captured
by our experimental manipulation that exhorts respondents to join the campaign.
Controlling for these strong predictors of participation presents a tough test for the
effect of emotions, essentially asking whether emotions affect mass behavior over and
above the forces of the CVM (see Valentino et al., 2011 for a similar strategy). Critically,
Table 1. OLS regressions predicting respondent’s likelihood of participating on candidate’s
behalf online (left) and offline (right).
Online participation Offline participation
Coefficient SE Coefficient SE
Intercept 1.06 (0.29)*** 0.87 (0.31)**
Emotional appeal
Angry 0.07 (0.31) 0.17 (0.36)
Anxious −0.09 (0.26) −0.17 (0.32)
Hopeful −0.17 (0.23) −0.12 (0.26)
News consumption −0.05 (0.05) −0.03 (0.07)
News × emotional appeal
Angry 0.03 (0.10) 0.07 (0.13)
Anxious 0.20 (0.11).0.26 (0.14).
Hopeful 0.22 (0.10)* 0.15 (0.11)
Attention to politics 0.03 (0.08) 0.08 (0.08)
Strength of partisanship 0.14 (0.08).0.13 (0.08)
Efficacy 0.31 (0.09)*** 0.32 (0.11)**
Education:
High school –0.18 (0.24) 0.22 (0.22)
Some college −0.23 (0.26) 0.21 (0.25)
BA or higher −0.55 (0.25)* −0.15 (0.24)
Income 0.00 (0.02) 0.00 (0.02)
N526 525
Note: ***p < .001; **p < .01; *p < .05; p < .1.
Jones et al. 1143
all of these control variables were measured prior to the experimental manipulation,
allowing us to continue using a causal framework in discussing the results.
The statistical results are shown in Table 1. We again simulate the results to show their
substantive significance, as described in King et al. (2000). Each of the independent vari-
ables is set to its mean (for continuous variables) or mode (for categorical variables). We
then simulate the first difference in participation between the control group and the emo-
tional appeal group for each value of news consumption. These first differences are
shown in Figure 4. Moving from left to right on the x-axis indicates a greater consump-
tion of news media, while increases on the y-axis indicate a greater difference between
the control and experimental group. 90% confidence intervals around the estimates are
shown as thin lines, with a zero effect indicated by the dashed line to help assess
significance.
Two key conclusions can be drawn from Table 1 and Figure 4. First, even controlling
for a host of predictors of political participation, the emotions that our fictitious candi-
date expressed had significant effects on likely participation. Second, this effect contin-
ues to be moderated by general levels of news consumption. All else equal, seeing the
‘hopeful’ Carlson increased the likelihood of online participation by 1.48 [.52, 2.43]
points and offline participation by 1.03 [.02, 2.04] points for those respondents who
scored at the very highest end of the media consumption scale. For those at the lowest
end of the scale, this appeal had no discernible effect (−.22 [−.64, .16] and −.17 [−.61,
.27], respectively). Likewise, seeing the ‘anxious’ message resulted in an effect of 1.34
[.37, 2.29] for online and 1.67 [.40, 2.93] for offline participation for those at the maxi-
mum value of news consumption, but had no effect on those at the other end of the scale
(−.15 [−.59, .26] and −.23 [−.72, .26], respectively). The estimates for the ‘angry’ appeal,
on the other hand, do not show any distinct effect across the range of news consumption.
This null-finding stands in contrast to the expectations in much of the literature about the
distinct and significant effects of anger in motivating citizen participation.
Discussion and conclusions
Investigating the role of emotional appeals in shaping mass political behavior is not a
new task. An extensive literature has explored how their own affective state can influ-
ence citizens’ engagement with politics. Until now, however, far less has been known
about the effects of target affect – appeals made by emotional elites in explicitly politi-
cal messages – on citizen participation. The experimental results in this study show
that voters exposed to candidate appeals expressed through the use of emotion are
more likely to participate on that candidate’s behalf – but that participation is boosted
solely amongst the most politically-engaged citizens. Further, in contrast to the litera-
ture on observer affect, the results show that different emotional states did not have
significantly different impacts on behavior. An emotional candidate – no matter the
specific emotion he expressed – increased participation amongst the most politically
sophisticated. These findings contribute significantly to the growing literature on emo-
tions and mass behavior in several ways.
First, we have shown that target affect, as measured by the emotional state expressed
by a candidate, can play a significant role in shaping democratic participation. Multiple
1144 new media & society 15(7)
Figure 4. Simulated first difference in likelihood of participating online (top row) and offline (bottom row) on behalf of candidate, by type of
emotional appeal and news consumption. First differences and 90% confidence intervals simulated from regression results shown in Table 1.
Jones et al. 1145
previous studies show that the emotions citizens experience shape their political engage-
ment and participation (e.g. MacKuen et al., 2010; Valentino et al., 2011). The novel
results in this study show that the emotions candidates express when communicating
with citizens also influence mass political behavior. Then-Senator Clinton’s tears in
New Hampshire, or Senator McCain’s temper on the campaign trail, serve a function
beyond just human interest news stories: they likely boost participation and engagement
with politics.
Second, the results offer a significant counterpoint to fears that the use of emotion in
appeals to voters will primarily affect the less-engaged, less-interested masses. The
effects of target affect in this study are limited solely to those who are already engaged
with politics to a relatively high degree. Those who have the most experience with, and
“operative knowledge” of, how elite cues should be translated to action are the most
affected by target affect. It seems that emotional appeals, for these voters, are not devoid
of informational content. Rather, the emotional appeal itself served as information rele-
vant to the decision to participate.
As with all experimental research designs, the present study has important limitations in
regard to its internal and external validity. Internally, the survey did not include questions
about the potential mechanisms linking the emotional state of the candidate to the behavior
of the respondent. We do not have measures of how respondents processed the information
they were presented with, nor do we have measures of respondents’ emotional states before
or after viewing the candidate’s appeal. For example, it is possible that respondents who
see an angry person will become angry themselves. The psychological literature on this
type of ‘emotional contagion’ reports conflicting results and does not support a straightfor-
ward transmission of target emotion to observer emotion (Gump and Kulik, 1997; Hsee
et al., 1990). Future work would do well to investigate if, and under what conditions,
respondents adopt the same emotion as displayed by in candidates’ appeals.
While the experimental images shown to respondents were carefully modeled on
existing candidates’ sites, there are necessarily still limitations to the experiment’s exter-
nal validity. First, exposure to the candidate and his message occurred once for only a
short period of time. Most campaigns involve intense, repeated appeals to voters. As
such, we might expect the results here to represent the lower bound of an effect that
would occur with repeated and sustained exposure to a message from a campaign. On the
other hand, the effect of emotional appeals may well diminish significantly over time,
and we encourage future research to extend the study here to account for this possibility.
Second, the dependent variables we study are the respondent’s intention to participate on
the candidate’s behalf, not their actual rates of participation, and were measured imme-
diately following the stimulus. Talk is cheap: saying you would volunteer for a candidate
is qualitatively different from actually showing up at their headquarters. Nonetheless,
many of the participatory acts asked about (e.g., signing up for news updates, liking the
candidate on a social networking site) could have been accomplished easily by following
prominent “links” from the main page of the site. Finally, the amount of information
respondents were presented with was minimal. This was a deliberate decision to isolate
the effects of emotional appeals, but not necessarily a realistic one. Few voters evaluate
a candidate knowing nothing about them other than their emotional state and a handful
of policy positions. Future research could replicate this experiment but alter the
1146 new media & society 15(7)
emotional states attributed to known politicians, a similar design to Sullivan and Masters’
original studies (Masters and Sullivan, 1989; Sullivan and Masters, 1988). Future
research could also explore the effects of different website design elements on voters’
likely participation. We exposed respondents to an emotional appeal via a splash page, as
well as other non-emotional appeals to action on the main page (e.g., “Join the
campaign!” and “Sign up to help in your area today”). Although beyond the scope of the
present study, there remains work to be done on which design elements of campaign sites
have the most impact on viewers and we encourage researchers to extend the experimen-
tal methods used here in that regard.
Ultimately, the results in this study suggest a new avenue for research on emotions
and mass behavior. Target affect in an emotional appeal, not just observer affect, influ-
ences citizens’ participation. And the critical finding that this influence is strongest
amongst the most engaged points us to a greater understanding of the heterogeneous
effects of affect that future researchers should build on. The notion that, in the absence of
other relevant information, affective states of the message source might be processed as
judgment-relevant information, hence mobilizing our most politically-sophisticated citi-
zens, should give us pause. This means that, in a campaign environment devoid of sub-
stantive debate, emotional appeals by political elites might have the strongest influence
on opinion leaders who are actively looking for information to guide their actions. The
consequences of this finding are broad, and highlight the need for substantive policy
debate in a campaign environment to foster rational decision-making among the most
engaged in our electorate.
Acknowledgements
We are grateful to Julio Carrión and David Wilson for their assistance in developing the survey,
and to Paul Brewer, Lee Rainie, and the journal’s anonymous reviewers for helpful comments and
suggestions.
Funding
The University of Delaware’s Interdisciplinary Humanities Research Center and the Center for
Political Communication funded this research.
Notes
1. These studies generally focus on ads that aim to provoke a particular emotional response in
the audience rather than ads that feature an individual expressing that emotion, but still signal
the importance of emotional messages for campaigns.
2. Critically for our purposes, there were no statistically significant differences in students’ rat-
ings of how “believable” and “convincing” the website was across the different conditions of
candidate images. In other words, no matter the emotional image (or lack thereof) students
were exposed to, they were equally likely to consider the site plausible.
3. One concern is that respondents exposed to the “splash” page may have perceived that the
candidate was prioritizing the economy since the appeal included an additional reference to
“fixing the economy” that those who saw the main site did not see. If the splash page were
signaling to respondents that Carlson was prioritizing the economy, then we should expect
respondents in the splash page conditions to have “the economy” primed, and hence pay more
Jones et al. 1147
attention to and recall more of his economic policy positions as a result. We fitted regression
models predicting respondents’ recall of his policy positions with the experimental condition,
their news consumption, and the interaction of the two. If the splash page primed the economy
as an issue for respondents, we would expect to see positive and significant effects for the
experimental conditions compared to the control group. This is not the case. The only signifi-
cant coefficient (for the interaction between news consumption and the ‘hopeful’ condition)
is negative, suggesting that those exposed to the hopeful candidate were less, not more, aware
of his positions on the economy. Full analyses are available from the authors.
4. There are no differences in the empirical results if we combine all activities into a single
scale; for interested readers, we present the scales separately.
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Author biographies
Philip Edward Jones (PhD, Harvard University, 2009) is an Assistant Professor of Political
Science and International Relations at the University of Delaware. His research on
1150 new media & society 15(7)
democratic accountability and how citizens respond to political elites has appeared in the
American Journal of Political Science, the Journal of Politics, and Political Behavior.
Lindsay H Hoffman (PhD, The Ohio State University, 2007) is an Assistant Professor in
Communication with a joint appointment in Political Science & International Relations
at the University of Delaware. Her research interests include politics and technology,
campaigns, and public opinion.
Dannagal G Young (PhD, University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for
Communication) is an Assistant Professor of Communication at the University of
Delaware. She studies the content, audience, and effects of political humor. Her research
on the psychology and influence of humor has appeared in numerous journals including
Media Psychology, Political Communication, International Journal of Press/Politics,
Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media, and Mass Media and Society.
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... Himelboim et al. (2016) interrogated how emotional valence-positive and negative affect-shapes Twitter conversations on politics. Terms like "affective online environment" (Knudsen & Stage, 2012, p. 149) and "online emotional appeals" (Jones et al., 2013) have emerged to denote the emotion-rich circumstance of the online environment and emotiondriven political expression and activism within it. ...
Chapter
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In this chapter, focusing on the position of the concept of morality, we briefly review the evolution of the field of social movements from the first formulations of the phenomena of protest, mass, and collective action in classical sociology, through the formation of social movement studies as proper field of research in the 1970s, to its contemporary state. We argue that while morality was central to the classical tradition’s understanding of movements, it lost prominence when the field was established, and still today, morality does not receive much attention. There are, of course, notable exceptions like the work of Jeffrey Alexander, Hans Joas, and the new social movement tradition in Europe. Relatively recently, morality has received increasing attention from scholars studying movements from the perspective of culture. We discuss the role of morality in three of the most prominent theories in this tradition, namely, collective identity, frame alignment, and emotion theory. We argue that they all present promising avenues for developing our understanding of morality and movements while we also point to limitations and inadequacies in each theory or the way they have been applied. We then turn to the constructive work of reorganizing the concept of morality’s relationship with civic action and social movement by developing three dimensions of morality that we argue which are of particular relevance to social movements: selves in interaction , rationalization and justification , and culture and tradition . We trace each dimension from its origin in moral philosophy through its formulation in classical sociology and finally into contemporary theories of civic action. Before closing, we reflect on how the different dimensions intersect and can be applied to the analysis of contemporary empirical cases of social movements and political protest.
... Yet studies concerning emotions in online activism-let alone emotions and morality-have remained "marginal" (Ahmed et al., 2017, p. 447), even though the Internet, especially social media, is increasingly becoming a relevant sphere for the expression, activation, and contagion of emotions when people engage in political behavior (e.g., Ahmed et al., 2017;Jones et al., 2013;Knudsen & Stage, 2012). So far, scholarship in this vein has paid less attention to the complexity between emotions and different political participation behaviors in online activism. ...
... Himelboim et al. (2016) interrogated how emotional valence-positive and negative affect-shapes Twitter conversations on politics. Terms like "affective online environment" (Knudsen & Stage, 2012, p. 149) and "online emotional appeals" (Jones et al., 2013) have emerged to denote the emotion-rich circumstance of the online environment and emotiondriven political expression and activism within it. ...
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The concluding chapter of the book points to research agendas that have emerged from the contributions to the volume on movements and morality. It does not sum up each contribution, since an introduction to concepts, methods, and applications can be found in the introductory Chap. 1 . Instead, the chapter identifies six lacunae in social movement studies that have become apparent in the pages of the book. A first lacuna is related to the bias in focus on left-wing groups, a second on the causal effects of morality, a third foundational lacuna pertains to the relationship between social science and moral philosophy, a fourth to how we perceive of morality and time, a fifth to the global diffusion of moral claims, and finally a sixth lacuna relates to reflections on the dilemma of universal moral claims versus particular identities and situations.
... Yet studies concerning emotions in online activism-let alone emotions and morality-have remained "marginal" (Ahmed et al., 2017, p. 447), even though the Internet, especially social media, is increasingly becoming a relevant sphere for the expression, activation, and contagion of emotions when people engage in political behavior (e.g., Ahmed et al., 2017;Jones et al., 2013;Knudsen & Stage, 2012). So far, scholarship in this vein has paid less attention to the complexity between emotions and different political participation behaviors in online activism. ...
... Himelboim et al. (2016) interrogated how emotional valence-positive and negative affect-shapes Twitter conversations on politics. Terms like "affective online environment" (Knudsen & Stage, 2012, p. 149) and "online emotional appeals" (Jones et al., 2013) have emerged to denote the emotion-rich circumstance of the online environment and emotiondriven political expression and activism within it. ...
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Adding to the growing literature on social movements as knowledge and theory creators, this chapter wants more social movement research to focus on the content of the political theories created by social movements , as an outcome of their morality. This chapter argues that prefigurative social movements create political theory through the interplay of their internal and external communication, their organization, and in their discussions of how and why to change the world: They are prefiguring political theory through their cognitive praxis. The chapter demonstrates how the literature on prefigurative social movements and Ron Jamison and Andrew Eyerman’s concept of cognitive praxis, combined with a decolonial feminist approach to knowledge and theory, provides space for the political theory of social movements within social movement literature. This theory is inherently political as it is aimed to be a (temporary) guide toward the kind of world the movements want to see and argues why the world should look like that. The chapter briefly outlines how a Cartesian approach to science prevents us from viewing theory based on lived experience as theory, even though all theory is based on lived experience, and thereby explains why we have not taken the knowledge and theory created by social movements seriously for so long. To recognize social movements as political actors, we need to engage with the concepts, policy proposals, critiques, or new institutions that they are creating, and not only the mechanics around creating them. Consequently, we need to recognize social movements as the authors of the knowledge and theory they create and not take credit for “discovering” it. Lastly, from a decolonial approach, we should recognize that social movement research is relational and that the research process should involve the social movements themselves to make sure they also benefit from it, and view them as colleagues who are sharing their knowledge with us. Moving away from the more Cartesian view of science requires a decolonization of the entire research process, and in particular rethinking what this means in terms of authorship, ownership, and credit.
... Yet studies concerning emotions in online activism-let alone emotions and morality-have remained "marginal" (Ahmed et al., 2017, p. 447), even though the Internet, especially social media, is increasingly becoming a relevant sphere for the expression, activation, and contagion of emotions when people engage in political behavior (e.g., Ahmed et al., 2017;Jones et al., 2013;Knudsen & Stage, 2012). So far, scholarship in this vein has paid less attention to the complexity between emotions and different political participation behaviors in online activism. ...
... Himelboim et al. (2016) interrogated how emotional valence-positive and negative affect-shapes Twitter conversations on politics. Terms like "affective online environment" (Knudsen & Stage, 2012, p. 149) and "online emotional appeals" (Jones et al., 2013) have emerged to denote the emotion-rich circumstance of the online environment and emotiondriven political expression and activism within it. ...
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Far-right grassroot organizations were early adopters of the internet and social media and have been using it to spread their ideologies, mobilize people and network since the 1990s. With the increased usage of social media, their communication style has naturally changed. Due to the interactive nature of social media, the far-right groups started to communicate in a savvy style based on meme and DIY aesthetics. This style allows these groups to blurry the line between serious and irony (Shifman, L., Memes in Digital Culture . Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2014) but also between facts and misinformation (Klein, O., The Open Journal of Sociopolitical Studies 154–179, 2020). There is a burgeoning body of literature investigating the way and for what purposes such organizations use the internet in which the researchers look particularly on memes (Klein, O., The Open Journal of Sociopolitical Studies 154–179, 2020) but also humour (Billig, M., Comic racism and violence. In S. Lockyer, & M. Pickering (Eds.), Beyond a joke. The limits of humor (pp. 25–44). New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005a; Billig, M., Laughter and ridicule. Towards a social critique of humor. London: SAGE Publications, 2005b). However, not many studies explored the link between humour and morality. The aim of this exploratory study, in which humour is viewed as a means of claims making and negotiation of political views, is to deepen the knowledge of how humour in memes produced and reproduced by far-right organizations can serve as a tool for constructing a moral order. To do so, I analysed memes used on the far-right Facebook page run by Czech organization Angry Mothers which engage in anti-Islam and anti-gender activism. Based on Michael Billig’s (2005) distinction between rebellious and disciplinary humour, I argue that the organization used rebellious humour to present themselves as an alternative to mainstream media and resistance to the alleged dictatorship of liberal elites and disciplinary humour to put minorities (both sexual and ethnic) “in their place”.
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Emotion, after a modest hiatus during the “cognitive revolution,” has reemerged of late to become a subject of significant attention in political science.1 The other contributions in this volume give ample evidence of the added understanding we gain by including emotion into the theoretical and empirical mix. Our entry in this volume turns to a question relevant to most if not all the other research found here: how do we best measure emotional response? We examine two central considerations—identifying which emotions define political responses and determining which kinds of questions are most suitable to assess these emotional reactions. Evaluating the measurement of emotion is important both because of the inherent challenges in securing reliable and valid measures of emotional reactions, as well as the sensitivity of our understanding of emotional reactions to our choice of measures.2
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This chapter concentrates on the effect of conscious consideration of emotion as a vital domain in which emotion can play out its role in human affairs. It is suggested that hope is a powerful coping mechanism that can mold perceptions about candidates and bias information search. It is also the key emotion in voting decisions and is essential for the democratic process. As hope for a candidate increases over time, individuals become more consistent and appraise all of the candidate's traits and issue positions in positive ways and the opponent's in negative ways. The 1996 election campaign showed the significance of hope, its compensatory relation to fear, and the consistency of hope and fear with candidate appraisals. The evidence about the role of emotions and appraisal in campaigns demonstrated that campaigns serve important informational functions.
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Political figures and events often elicit strong emotional responses in citizens. These responses have the power to impact judgments and information processing, as well as the types of information that individuals seek out. Recent examples of political events that have elicited strong emotional reactions are easily accessible. The fiasco in Florida during the presidential election of 2000 led many voters to experience anger at the outcome of the election and disgust at the process whereby it was decided. The terrorist attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001, led citizens to experience a collective sense of fear and anxiety, along with sadness for the loss of life and anger at Osama bin Laden for masterminding the attacks. Along with these negative emotions was a sense of enthusiastic patriotism in the United States. Positive affective reactions, however, tend to be more general than negative reactions. That is, while positive reactions may be experienced as general positivity, negative feelings are typically more differentiated and may be experienced, for example, as fear, anger, sadness, disgust, or guilt (e.g., Averill 1980; Ellsworth and Smith 1988).
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Most research on political knowledge focuses on declarative knowledge or specific facts about politics. By contrast, this chapter posits the importance of operative knowledge action, which is comprised of: (1) the intention to achieve one or more goals that define a given civic task; (2) a process for achieving these goals; and (3) heuristics for selecting actions down a goal path. It is suggested that operative knowledge for civic action lies at the heart of many political activities and should be assessed whenever researchers attempt to infer the knowledge individuals have of the process for participating in the political life of their society. This chapter develops an argument for how operative knowledge is acquired, the contexts in which it is deployed, the mental models that initiate its use, and provides examples of heuristic elements of this knowledge that lead to civic behaviors. Finally, it proposes the concept of civic intelligence as a general rubric under which to consider different kinds of political knowledge.
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This chapter tries to differentiate between anger and anxiety as distinct negative reactions to the Iraq war and explores their unique political effects. The distinct effects of anger and anxiety make clear the need to better understand their political consequences. The link between negative emotion and deeper levels of thought does not appear to extend to anger. Complex negative objects such as war and terrorism elicit diverse negative reactions. Americans had related but distinct feelings of anger and anxiety toward the war, terrorists, Saddam Hussein, and anti-war protesters. As anxiety and anger increase, respondents are more likely to report thinking about the Iraq war, talking about it, and, to a more limited extent, attending to national television news and newspapers. In general, the results raise serious concerns about the prevailing two-dimensional valence model of emotion.