Research shows that emotions are better at persuading people than fact-based arguments. Politicians have used fear, anger, hope, and other emotions since the ancient Greeks to influence public opinion.
Here are some of the most common emotions used in political messaging, and their effects.
Fear is a necessary but powerful emotion. Politicians often use it to their advantage.
You don’t have to look far to find examples of fear-based messaging in campaign advertisements and all kinds of political speeches. Politicians may use language, images, or music to elicit fear. They may discuss frightening problems like inflation or crime or warn people of the dangerous future that may transpire if their political opponents take office.
During the 2022 midterm elections, both President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump wove fearful messaging into their speeches.
Biden recounted the attack on former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s husband, Paul Pelosi in one of his speeches. He described how a man carrying “zip ties, duct tape, rope and a hammer” smashed their window. He explained the man intended to break Nancy Pelosi’s kneecaps, but couldn’t find her so attacked her husband instead.
He then associated this attack with the violence that occurred on January 6, 2021, drawing a clear line between extreme violence and Republican Trump supporters. “That is the path to chaos in America,” Biden said.
For his part, while speaking in support of Republican candidates in the midterm election, Trump made statements claiming a record number of illegal immigrants had crossed the border that September. He continued, “Biden and the radical Democrats do nothing at all to stop the death and devastation caused by this invasion into our country.” He also described a crime in which a man of Honduran descent stabbed another man in a hotel.
These messages have a significant impact. A research review found fear was very effective almost all of the time. Fear was found to influence both people’s attitudes and behaviors.
This is because people’s brains prioritize fearful information and hold onto it.
Some research has shown that fear often causes people to seek security and place more trust in the government. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), politicians who use fear typically also try to establish themselves as the most capable of protecting citizens.
Interestingly, a study out of France found increased fear makes people less likely to vote for the political right.
Politicians may also use fear to reduce the opposition’s voter turnout. The APA explained if people are fearful, they are often less inclined to vote.
Anger is another emotion frequently elicited in political messaging. Like fear, it is also an effective way to change voter behavior and beliefs.
Messaging, music, and images that attempt to stir anger in people are very common. Take this advertisement from Kandiss Taylor who ran for Governor in Georgia. She wears boxing gloves and says things like, “You sold us out to China. You highjacked our elections,” while forcibly hitting a punching bag.
Anger has also been found to cause people to be more habitual in their voting. Researchers found that angry people spent less time on political websites and were more likely to seek out information that matched their opinions.
Angry people are also less likely to compromise.
Other research has found that anger can make people distrustful of the establishment.
Democrats and Republicans characterize the January 6, 2021 event at the Capitol very differently. Whether it was a riot or a protest will be for history to decide. However, Trump’s angry rhetoric may have had an influence on people’s behavior that day.
In his speech, Trump aired grievances against “the radical left,” the Supreme Court, and a number of politicians including “weak Republicans,” “Big Tech,” and the “fake news media.” He told people schools were indoctrinating their children, and made his case that the election was stolen. He also said, “And we fight. We fight like hell. And if you don't fight like hell, you're not going to have a country anymore.”
Although it hasn’t been studied as much as fear and anger, hope is another emotion politicians frequently invoke in campaign advertising, speeches, and more. They tap into people’s hope for a better future – one that will only be possible by voting for the right candidate.
This 2018 campaign advertisement for Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez details the problems facing many working-class residents of Queens and the Bronx, then ends on a hopeful note. “It doesn’t take a hundred years to do this, it takes political courage. A New York for the many is possible,” she said.
Former President Barak Obama often discusses a “politics of hope.” When he ran for President in 2008, his campaign slogan was “yes we can.” Some of his advertisements like this one elicited hope. The word “hope” even features at the end.
The fact that he and Ocasio-Cortez ultimately won their campaigns provides some evidence that hope can be an effective way to win votes.
Of course, human beings have a range of emotions, all of which may be manipulated for political reasons.
In her book The Shock Doctrine, author Naomi Klein outlined how governments around the world have exploited people’s shock in the aftermath of real crises to push through unpopular policies. One example she gave is the switch from public to charter schools in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
The effects of enthusiasm have been studied in relation to voter behavior. Although it feels different from anger, it has similar effects.
Enthusiasm can make people more politically active. It can also encourage people to support risk-taking political policies, and cause more habitual voting.
Some recent political advertisements have focused on enthusiasm. Take this one from Representative Dan Crenshaw’s Avengers-type advertisement from the 2022 midterm elections.
These emotions have been less frequently studied, but certainly appear quite often in political advertisements and speeches.
Politicians frequently reference children being at risk, people who are underserved by their opponents’ policies, veterans, and other vulnerable groups in an attempt to draw out people’s compassion.
This advertisement from former Representative Liz Cheney’s campaign elicits compassion by having a young woman, whose firefighter husband was killed in the line of duty, tell her story. People watching the ad likely feel compassion for the woman, then may feel enthusiasm when they discover how Cheney helped her.
Luckily, it’s not all doom and gloom. Politicians do sometimes use humor in their messaging.
Many political speeches begin with a joke. It’s also become standard for political leaders to appear on late-night talk shows.
Some politicians also use humor in their political advertisements. In this example, Jim Lamon featured himself as a hero in an old-fashioned Western shootout against “the DC gang.”
Overcoming Emotional Manipulation
It’s not easy to overcome emotional manipulation. But some strategies may help to minimize it.
Being aware of the problem is an important first step. Once you know about emotional manipulation in politics, it quickly becomes more apparent. There is some evidence showing fear-based messaging can have less of an effect when people are aware of it, and may even back-fire.
The American Psychological Association also recommends seeking out unbiased news sources, or taking a media break altogether. They also advise people to put their fear in context. Is a threat immediate? If not, take a deep breath and try to focus on the reality of the situation.
Politicians have used emotional manipulation to get ahead for thousands of years.
In speeches, campaign advertisements, and many other forms of political messaging they use language, images, and music to sway people’s opinions.
Messages involving fear and anger are especially prevalent. But politicians sometimes try to inspire feelings of hope, compassion, and humor. They may also use feelings of shock to advance their agendas.
As more people become aware of these strategies, they may begin to demand a different political climate and support candidates who are less emotionally manipulative.
Until then, look for unbiased news sources, turn off political ads, and remember to take every political claim with a liberal dash of salt.