Emotions linked to political influence and its effect on information processing

Emotions tied to one’s ideology, in liberals and conservatives, can drastically influence one’s motivations for information processing, a study at the University at Buffalo has found.

Researchers collected data from two surveys via the risk information seeking and processing model (RISP), initiated in October of 2016. Nearly 500 adults, all based in the US, were given a questionnaire pertaining to the topic of the 2016 presidential election and climate change.

“This topic caught our attention because the 2016 presidential election was highly contentious and divisive, which has a lot of commonality with the challenges we experience when communicating about climate change. We thought it would be interesting to study the election as a risk topic and contrasts it with climate change to see how the U.S. public deal with information about these two issues,” said Janet Yang, the study’s lead author.

RISP, a comprehensive model established on the principles of two other concepts, the Heuristic-Systematic Model (HSM) and the Theory of Planned Behavior, was used to better understand what contributes to risk information seeking and processing, in which risk perception is cognitive and emotional.

Based on its concept, emotion is vital and information insufficiency is the core of the model. Information processing continues until one’s particular goals of processing are accomplished, the theory states.

Researchers observed that followers of the two political ideologies, liberals and conservatives, carry unique perceptions regarding possible risks from the election and climate change. The risk perceptions triggered different emotional responses, thus influencing the way they processed relevant information on both events.

Higher risk perception, anger, and fear associated with climate change were seen more in liberals compared to conservatives. In the election, however, equally high variables were measured in both groups. In liberals, fear was linked to having fewer perceived knowledge or particular information about the election, compared to their counterpart. In conservatives, on the other end, fear increased the need to absorb more information regarding the topics.

When it came to climate change, fearful respondents were not so sure of their existing knowledge, and instead, desired more information. Higher levels of fear and increased desire for more information were seen in conservatives on the topic. Liberals exhibited more anger and reported higher perceived knowledge.

While the findings only highlight two emotions, fear, and anger, there are other emotions, researchers say, that may also influence information processing in both of these groups.

“There may be meaningful differences in other emotions, such as hope, that also influenced information processing among these two groups,” said Yang.

“We also only measured two specific emotions – fear and anger. There may be meaningful differences in other emotions, such as hope, that also influenced information processing among these two groups.”

The findings appeared in Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly.