Other Voices

Anger, hope, fear and pride on the 2016 campaign trail

A campaign rally for Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump Friday at the Oklahoma State Fair.
A campaign rally for Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump Friday at the Oklahoma State Fair. The Associated Press

In yet another story about Donald Trump’s lead in the polls, NBC Nightly News referred to his “emotional appeals to angry Republicans.” This comment was just about the most on-target thing said so far in the political race.

Emotion is driving the polls.

Political analysts afford too little weight to people’s feelings affecting their supposedly rational voting decisions.

Voters don’t like to acknowledge that they use their emotions more than logical reasoning when making decisions about whom to elect as leader of the free world. Yet that is exactly what happens: Voters use their emotions to select the candidates they support.

My colleague and I studied this very thing in the past three U.S. presidential elections and found that emotions were at least as important, and sometimes more important, than voters’ rational assessments of a politician.

The way a candidate makes voters feel — specifically angry, afraid, hopeful and proud — has a huge influence on political opinions, and ultimately for whom they vote.

The country saw how creating feelings of hope resonated with voters in 2008 during Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign. The emotion this season seems to be anger.

Feeling angry about immigration? Trump has tapped into anger better than Obama did with hope.

Our brains process emotions differently than other kinds of information — quickly and automatically, without conscious thought. That’s why we feel something before we have a chance to think about it.

But rather than being opposites, one good and one evil, emotion and reason complement each other. Research shows that emotion is not a threat to rational decision-making.

Rather, emotion is key to logical thinking by getting our attention, making us take notice and then causing us to think carefully and critically. Sometimes it just takes awhile.

Simply being aware of how emotion works can go a long way in helping us work through the process more quickly. The key is to not deny that we are being influenced by our feelings.

What voters should do is acknowledge the emotion and recognize it is providing them with valuable information.

They can then move on to think about why this candidate’s message is arousing anger. Knee-jerk reactions can be thought through sensibly, and voters can arrive at more considered decisions.

Different emotions can lead to different outcomes. For example, hope and pride encourage people to get out and vote.

Anger can lead to reliance on stereotypes. That does not mean that it’s inevitable. Simply knowing how emotions work and the kinds of effects they have on us can go a long way toward overcoming them so voters can make informed decisions.

It would behoove political analysts to acknowledge the role of emotion in political judgment more often. It’s their job to help citizens understand candidates’ success or failure, and to scrutinize policy and issue positions.

By focusing only on the cold, analytical side of things — what scientists call cognition — they miss the important “hot” processes, called affect, that play a part in the connection between thinking and feeling that is natural to all human beings.

We might already be seeing the transition from the emotional to the rational part of the process as Ben Carson and Carly Fiornia gain on Trump’s lead.

The playbook then calls for Trump to renew people’s anger with another high-emotion topic — most recently, the birther controversy.

Hillary Clinton called it when she responded by saying this was “what’s wrong with instantaneous reactions,” and talking about people getting “all worked up” and “feeding on prejudice.”

Knowing how emotion works is a tool people can use to understand how they subconsciously process political information, and then make a conscious effort to change it.

Renita Coleman is an associate professor of journalism in the Moody College of Communication at The University of Texas at Austin.