Research & Insights

Emotions Make Us Blind to Political Lies

Anger and anxiety seem to be driving the polls this election cycle.

As emotions run wild, people are more likely to be grab on to misinformation purported by others in their political party.

In a new study published in the August 2015 Journal of Communication, communications scholar Brian Weeks found that people who feel angry are more likely to believe misinformation.

Over 700 participants were first asked to write an essay about a partisan issue – either immigration reform or the death penalty – which focused on aspects that made them either angry or anxious. Next, they read a fictional Associated Press article containing misinformation about the issue attributed to either Congressional Republicans or Congressional Democrats. Some of the articles debunked the political misinformation, while others just repeated the false claims. Finally, they completed a survey which asked about their emotional state, political leanings and knowledge of current politics.

Participants who felt angry were more likely to believe misinformation that supports the political stance of their party.

On the other hand, anxious people relied less on party cues – whether or not the information is coming from their own party or the other party – when considering misinformation. Rather, they paid more attention to the content of the message itself.

Weeks suggests that anxiety may lead people to question their own party’s stance on the issue and consider information from the other side.

“Although anxiety has typically been discussed as an emotion that facilitates democratic thinking and open-mindedness, this suggests a paradox of anxiety. That is, anxiety promotes critical thinking and learning about politics, but it may backfire if the information considered is inaccurate or misleading,” Weeks explains.

The study suggests that people are misinformed not simply because they pay attention to partisan sources, but that their emotional state also influences how they interpret false information. Weeks points out that “people do not necessarily believe derogatory claims about the other side simply because they are Republican or Democrat. Rather, the combination of anger and partisanship might be what leaves them misinformed.” This is particularly problematic when people are exposed to misinformation, because anger tends to reduce our motivation to seek out new information that challenges our beliefs.

There’s reason to be hopeful, though. “Corrections to misinformation were effective, even in the face of emotional experiences and partisan motivations,” Weeks reports. “Even strong partisan motivated reasoners are willing to give up on their position when exposed to an abundance of information telling them they are wrong.”

Weeks cautions that more research is needed to nail down specifically how emotions and information interact to form opinions. In particular, he notes that whether or not an issue is salient to an audience – whether they’re thinking about the issue – may impact how they process information. Likewise, the misinformation Weeks used in the study wasn’t widely distributed or widely debunked in the media. Long-standing misinformation that has received more media coverage may be more difficult to correct.”

Journal of Communication

Posted: April 19, 2016
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