Kids in bed? Check. Email to the boss sent? Check. Laundry folded? Mostly. You grab your phone and plop on the couch for some relaxing time on Facebook. But past the cute kid pics and cooking videos, you see that a high school friend has posted yet another political rant, and you totally disagree with their opinion. Instead of feeling relaxed, you’re feeling mad — really mad. Before you hit the comments with your two cents, know that there is science behind politics and anger, and the discourse during election season can dial our stress levels up to 11.
Anger may feel like it comes out of nowhere, but it’s the result of a complex cascade of events in the brain. Our body’s default setting is calm and even-temperedness, with the prefrontal cortex running the show, says Alexandra H. Solomon, Ph.D., a licensed clinical psychologist and clinical assistant professor at Northwestern University. “That’s the part of our brain that has empathy, can see multiple sides of a situation, and can hold compassion,” she says.
When our brain detects stress — like when we get upset reading a news story or watching a political debate — it diverts oxygen and glucose from the prefrontal cortex to the amygdala, triggering the body’s fight-or-flight response. The hypothalamus tells our adrenal glands to pump stress hormones — cortisol and epinephrine — to prepare our bodies to fight or run. These hormones make our hearts race, blood pressure increase, skin feel hot, and muscles tense.
Our brain tells our body we’re ready to fight, and sometimes we do — even if that's just with words. “When we’re in fight-flight mode, it feels really good to name-call or hit below the belt,” Solomon says, “because our physiology is telling us we are threatened.”
The amygdala ensures we react quickly to danger, Solomon says, but it’s not great at distinguishing a real threat (being chased by an ax murderer) from an imaginary one (reading a tweet). It also can’t assess the situation fully. At that moment, when the amygdala senses stress, Solomon says, “we lose empathy and perspective.”
You're not alone if this response sounds familiar. In 2019, 56% of U.S. adults said they’re stressed about the 2020 presidential election — up from 52% in 2016 — according to an annual survey by the American Psychological Association. The report also found:
- More than half of U.S. adults said they want to stay informed but the news stresses them out
- 56% of all U.S. adults said they thought America was at the lowest point in its history. The figure was even higher among Black and Hispanic adults (72% and 58%, respectively) and among women (60% of women versus 52% of men)
- 71% of Democrats, 53% of independents, and 48% of Republicans said the 2020 election is a major source of stress
Although it may not always seem like it, not everyone is angry all the time about politics, says Jon Krosnick, Ph.D, a social psychologist, professor, and the director of the Political Psychology Research Group at Stanford University. He prefers the term “emotional engagement,” as people can feel a host of emotions surrounding politics, including optimism and elation.
But anger is super-common, and it often stems from other emotions — namely, fear and frustration. “Fear and anger are sort of conjoined twins,” says Alison Dagnes, Ph.D, professor of political science at the Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania and author of Super Mad at Everything All the Time: Political Media and Our National Anger.
People are often afraid that something they have will be taken away, she explains. In political psychology, it’s known as perceived deprivation. For example, we may fear losing our reproductive freedoms or 2nd Amendment rights. That fear may develop into anger toward politicians (and their supporters) we worry will deprive us.
Frustration may also morph into anger, says Amber Spry, Ph.D, assistant professor of politics and African & African-American studies at Brandeis University. “Feelings of frustration over conversations with your friends and family can contribute to anger in politics,” she says. “If you feel like your actions don’t lead to different outcomes in politics — if you feel, for example, the justice system doesn’t respond — those things certainly lead to anger.”
If election season tends to make your blood boil, experts say it could be for the following reasons.
Political beliefs are bigger parts of our personal identities.
Experts say our political views have become more tightly wound into our identities than ever before, joining other identifiers such as race or ethnicity, gender, religion, sexual orientation, job, and location. Because political affiliation has become part of who we are, not just what we think, more aspects of our lives may feel politicized, and therefore challenges to our views may feel more personal.
Americans generally get passionate about a couple of issues that matter most to them, based on their personal identity. Someone who comes from a family of hunters may be passionate about gun rights, for example. “Whether it’s gun control or abortion or climate change, there is a group of people, typically 10 to 15% of Americans, who become passionate about that issue," Krosnick says.
In her research, Spry has found people usually care more about policy than party alone. “When people are talking about issues that impact their day-to-day lives, a lot of those issues are not super-partisan,” she says. “People want the same types of provision of goods and services, especially on the local level. They want a stop sign put on a busy street. They want their trash to be picked up on certain days of the week.”
Differences arise in how best to achieve those goals, however, and partisanship can play a role. A 2018 study found that most Americans across political parties agree climate change exists. But participants were much more likely to support climate policy when they were told their party supported it, regardless of the policy’s actual content.
Being a Democrat or a Republican may be part of our identity, but that doesn’t mean every Democrat or every Republican is the same. “There are differences within groups of people,” Spry says. “Not all women want the same outcomes in politics. Not all African Americans want the same outcome.”
Politics has become more “us versus them.”
If you’re finding it harder to connect with family members or friends who don’t share your political beliefs, you’re not imagining things. Experts agree we’re more polarized than ever, from politicians down to voters.
It’s human nature to align with a group and root for our team to win. “There is something innate within us that we are a very cliquish species,” Dagnes says, “and we like to think we are part of something that’s good and that’s better than the people who are against us.”
But our dislike and distrust of the other team — known as out-party antipathy — is growing, Krosnick says. Roughly half of Americans say they’re neither Democrat nor Republican, he explains, but in voters who do have strong party allegiance, out-party antipathy has increased a lot over the last 20 years.
“People in America are more likely to hate members of the opposing party if they identify with one of the parties,” Krosnick says. “We don’t actually know why that dislike has been growing, but that is certainly one reason why we will see heightened negative emotions — anger, frustration, resentment — at the time of the next election.”
We’re also moralizing politics more, says Jarret Crawford, Ph.D, professor of psychology at The College of New Jersey. We see issues such as immigration, abortion, racial equality, or LGBTQ rights, for instance, as both moral and political ones, and our stances are linked to our personal identities.
“More and more, political values are moral values,” Crawford says. “One of the things we know about morality is it’s oftentimes seen as black or white, right or wrong. To say something is a moral decision is to say, ‘I think this is right and other positions are wrong.’”
Media consumption feeds the beast.
Most of us consume a lot of media, and it’s probably not surprising that stokes our emotional response to politics. How much we consume matters, and so does what we consume.
With tons of choices for news and information, we can curate our media experience in ways we couldn’t years ago. If we follow and interact with people and groups on social media or get news from sources aligned only with our viewpoints, we may unknowingly create epistemic bubbles (getting info from only “our” side) and echo chambers (dismissing info from “their” side). This behavior can reinforce feeling as if we’re right and the other side is wrong or we’re being threatened when we encounter beliefs that challenge ours.
Political conversations are better face to face than online, experts say. Social platforms are designed for knee-jerk responses, not contemplation or deliberation. “On Facebook, we do thumbs up, thumbs down, we do sad, mad,” Solomon says. “It’s all about how I react to you. There’s not a ‘You’ve given me something to think about’ or ‘I see you.’ The whole system plays into reactivity.”
Is there an upside to our anger?
Yes. As it turns out, anger is a powerful political motivator. If we’re enraged, we’re more likely to be engaged — to donate money, canvass for a candidate, and, hopefully, visit the voting booth. Political parties know this, which is why campaign ads, rallies, and debates “go negative” to continually stoke those fiery feelings. “It’s on purpose because it works,” Dagnes says.
“Feeling angry, feeling fearful, feeling anxious can lead us to certain types of democratic behaviors we want to see,” Crawford says. “When we’re feeling these kinds of negative emotions, perhaps the best way to deal with those is to channel them into positive political behavior.”
Spry says emotions help shape public opinion of an issue — and politicians respond to public opinion. “If anger or other emotions are helping move public opinion in productive directions to a more just and more equal and free society,” she says, “we can use anger and any other combination of emotions in ways that ultimately lead to a greater collective good."
More on Navigating the 2020 Election as a Family
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