Emotional Attachment to Political Parties Seems to Make People More Knee-Jerk in Their Beliefs

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(FILES): This 19 January 2004 file photo
Photo: Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images

Part of the fun in watching two politicians debate is seeing their foreheads sweat, their spit fly, and their fists pound the podium. Emotion is a hallmark of politics; at a certain point, logic and reason are tossed out the window and passion takes over, whether the setting is a televised debate or a dinnertime argument.

A new study published in the journal PLOS One lends some support to the idea that the more emotional people get when politics comes up, the less likely they are to think things through clearly. A team led by Michael Bang Petersen, a professor of political science at Aarhus University in Denmark, asked 58 subjects ages 19 to 32 to report their political ties. Then, the researchers attached electrodes to the index and middle fingers of the participants’ nondominant hands; these measured their physiological responses by recording small amounts of sweat present on the fingertips.

The subjects were then shown 16 policy proposals, each with the logo from one of two rival Danish political parties affixed to it — “We should lower the tax on income,” for example, or “The police should be far more visible.” Subjects were asked to what extent they agreed or disagreed with the proposal. The catch was that the party names were assigned randomly to the proposals — sometimes a proposal was paired with a party that didn’t actually support it. In other words, this was a test for knee-jerk support for anything with a given party’s brand affixed to it.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, it was the emotionally engaged participants who were the most knee-jerk. All things being equal, those participants who experienced a strong physiological response when their party’s logo appeared tended to report that they agreed with that party’s proposals, no matter their content — that is, they blindly nodded along, at least in this experiment, to anything “proposed,” even fictitiously, by their party.

We build up emotional attachments to objects if we experience them in emotional, activating contexts,” explained Petersen, and this can apply as much to politics as to any other area. “So if positive feelings are elicited when I watch Barack Obama, when I go to a Democratic convention, and when I’m around other Democrats, then my emotional systems will automatically begin to associate things that are linked to the Democratic party with positive affect.”

Once those emotional ties are in place, they’re almost impossible to change. You can try to put yourself in a situation where your opinions are tested, said Petersen, which is a good way to increase the cognitive effort involved in decision-making: If you have to justify your choice, you usually rely on reason over emotion to make it. But that can easily backfire. “You might simply put more effort into justifying the already-held opinion rather than changing the underlying one,” Peterson said.

In short, once you’re a biased partisan, it’s difficult to see the other side. As Petersen puts it, “it’s like choosing football teams. You don’t make a rational assessment about which team is better or which team deserves to win. You support your team no matter what.”