Anxious Politics

By Bethany Albertson

What is the role of anxiety in contemporary political debates, like immigration, the economic crisis or the recent H1N1 scare? In studies of public opinion, emotions such as anxiety have been alternatively ignored and derided. However, current research on anxiety tends to portray it in a positive light: anxiety makes people seek out information and anxious citizens are more likely to base their political decisions on new information rather than standing decisions such as partisanship. Given that the average American citizen has little factual knowledge about politics, the idea that anxiety shakes us up and causes us to learn suggests that anxiety is beneficial.

My co-author, Shana Gadarian, and I started doing research in this area because we could not square these positive implications of anxiety with the way it seems to work in political debates. Politicians sometimes try to make people anxious, and we had trouble believing that their goal was to create an informed citizenry – we assumed that they were trying to win votes, suggesting a persuasive aspect to anxiety that hadn’t been studied before. We also read work in psychology arguing that anxiety causes people to pay attention to threat. We hypothesized that anxiety causes people to learn, but that it causes people to learn in a biased way, paying more attention to threatening information.

So far, we’ve studied these ideas in three substan- tive areas: immigration, the economic crisis, and the H1N1 scare. Our typical study is an experiment that participants take on their home computer. For example, in our first immigration study we asked half of the participants in the study to list their thoughts about immigration and we asked the other half to list their worries. The goal is to induce anxiety in half the population in a fairly unobtrusive way. After listing worries or thoughts, we ask them to take some time to read some stories. They see a list of article head- lines; some are about immigration and some aren’t, and, among the immigration headlines, some are threatening and some are not. Some participants read all of the stories (six total), some read none, but most read about three.

Our study records which stories each participant looks at, and, based on the data, we know that anxious participants (those that listed worries) are more likely to look at threatening information than the non-anxious participants (those that listed their thoughts). They’re also more likely to remember threatening information and more likely to agree with it. In our work, anxiety caused people to learn, but their learning was directed at threatening information. This makes sense given politicians’ use of fear as a rhetorical strategy. In a later study, we used campaign ads to induce anxiety about immigration and had similar findings.

Our most recent study has been on the H1N1 flu. Public health campaigns sometimes consciously try to scare us into healthier behavior and sometimes tone down the threatening aspects of their message. We were interested in the effect of anxiety on learning and on trust in various government groups. Our findings on learning were mixed: politically moderate students who were anxious about H1N1 paid more attention to threatening information, while liberals and conservatives re- sisted the bias. However, anxious students, regard- less of ideology, reported higher levels of trust in governmental organizations such as the CDC, Health and Human Services, and the FDA to provide information about H1N1.

Our next set of studies will look at anxiety and public health campaigns in two different political contexts: the U.S. and South Africa. South Africa is facing a HIV/AIDS crisis, and we’re curious to see how anxiety about health plays out there.

Bethany Albertson is assistant professor of government. Her primary research interest is political psychology. She earned a Ph.D. in political science from the University of Chicago and is currently at work on a book about the role of anxiety in contemporary political debates.