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The Link Between The Voter Turnout and Emotions

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Many scholars and political scientists have long studied and attempted to understand voter turnout in the United States, the reason why it is on an overall decline, as well as the psychological factors as to why people vote. The decline in voter turnout is often attributed to structural factors such as a lack of mass mobilization, systematic bias and an overall decline in social capital, as well as individual factors such as one’s views on the government/political elites, a lack of personal incentives or even psychological factors.

While there are several reasons why voter turnout is on a constant decline, in the end, it is a result of each individual’s emotion and cognitive decision-making. The psychology of emotion is a complex science in which often attempts to understand how emotion affects one’s decision making as well as the rationality of the decisions that are being made.

This review addresses the psychology of emotions, specifically emotions in the positive spectrum, and how they influence one’s involvement in the political process. The research demonstrates a difference between strong positive emotions and subtle positive emotions and their correlation with one’s desire to vote as well as the rationality of their decision-making.

Voter Turnout

Over the past several decades, voter turnout has been on a constant decline. Scholars hypothesize the reason for this decline, which vary immensely, touching on topics such as views on the government/political elites, systematic bias, the decline in social capital and more. (Martinez, 2010, Rosenstone and Hansen, 1993).

In a democratic republic such as the United States, the citizens are meant to drive the democratic process. If many citizens have an unfavorable view on political elites, this could play a huge role in the way they vote, as well as voter turnout overall. For example, if a particular person has an unfavorable view of both of the presidential frontrunners, there is a higher chance that they will not take the time to vote (Dalton, 2006).

Arend Lijphart of Cambridge University (1997) addresses low voter turnout and why it is an issue. He provides us with several reasons as to why it is a serious problem, which includes systematic bias, unequal political influence. Additionally, he explains that midterm elections are less publicized and are perceived as less important to the public, which could lower the desire to vote for those particular candidates. Lijphart also explained that voter turnout is, in fact, a universal issue, and it is not just an issue in the United States.

Additionally, many scholars argue that the decline in social capital and the rise of technology has played a large role in the decline in voter turnout (Putnam, 1995, Teixeira, 1992). The article, Tuning in, Tuning Out: The Strange Disappearance of Social Capital in America by Robert Putnam (1995) addresses the social capital formation and disappearance in the United States throughout the last 100 years. Putnam examines topics such as education, civil rights, technology, and economic fluctuations and how they affect social capital and social activities such as voting.

While many authors and scholars have addressed the causes of low voter turnout and the issues that they cause, many also address potential solutions. Things such as personal incentives, political mobilization, campaign exposure and focusing on giving all demographics an equal voice are all ways that can support an increase in voter turnout (Gerber and Green, 2000, Jackman, 1987, Lijphart, 1997, Verba, and Brady, 1995).

Emotion

Psychological and emotional behaviors have long been attributed to political attitudes and voter participation. Emotions, whether they are positive or negative, have a huge impact on the way we feel about certain people, how we behave and perhaps most importantly, the decisions we make. Many scholars have studied and attempted to understand emotions and how they affect our decision-making, whether these decisions are political, occupational or personal.

The psychology of emotion is constantly evolving and allows scientists to take a new approach in their studies. For example, early psychological studies conducted by Charles Darwin observe emotional reactions in both humans in animals. Darwin stipulates that humans and animals show emotion in very similar ways and communicate through expressions to each other (Darwin, 1998). More recent studies examine moral reasoning, judgment, first impressions and emotional responses (Davis, 1994, Eagley, & Chaiken, 1993, Panksepp, 1998, Smith & Ellsworth, 1985).

The article Feeling and thinking: Preferences need no inferences (Zajonc, 1980) attempts to explain emotional responses to stimuli and how our immediate emotional responses are often unavoidable. Additionally, it touches on the relationship between decision-making, and how some decision making is better made with less emotional influence. It states “Affect and cognition are under the control of separate and partially independent systems that can influence each other in a variety of ways, and that both constitute independent sources of effects in information processing.” According to the article, one could infer that decisions are more rational and better made when we are not being influenced by strong emotions. Willis, J., & Todorov, A. (2006) support Zajonc’s studies in their research titled First impressions: Making up your mind after a 100-Ms exposure to a face. The study uses 5 experiments that focus on judgment in order to understand first impressions. The methods attempted to use exposure time towards specific people in order to see how this affected the participant’s judgment. These judgments derived from attractiveness, likeability, trustworthiness, competence, and aggressiveness.

Several other studies and experiments have been helpful in understanding what emotion is, why it matters, and how it plays a role in the decisions we make and the impressions we have. While it is a study that is constantly evolving, as demonstrated previously, it is crucial that the psychology of emotion is continuously being studied in order to better understand trends in human behavior.

Voter Turnout and Emotion

According to the research provided, emotion and emotional responses can influence the decisions we make as well as how we make them, which include political decisions such as voter turnout. There is an entire spectrum of emotions and psychological studies that have a major influence over one’s participation in the political process, but we will focus on positive type emotions, their differences, and their influence over one’s decision making.

Positive, or “feel-good” emotions, such as happiness, hope, and joy, are feelings in which generation motivation and enthusiasm. Ted Brader and George E. Marcus (2013) argue that “feel-good” emotions “increase interest in political processes, motivates political action, and strengthens reliance on prior convictions in making political choices”. If one is experiencing an emotion such as joy or happiness, they may also have more positive feelings toward a particular candidate, or towards the political process in general. This overall enthusiasm can create the motivation and energy necessary to be a part of the political process.

However, not all-positive emotion is channeled into the political process, and may, in fact, not increase one’s motivation to vote at all. If someone is content and has an overall satisfaction with life, it is plausible that they do not place a lot of their attention and energy into the negative aspects of politics, which could potentially disrupt their comfort. That being said, positive emotions can vary in regards to how they are channeled, and how they have an effect on decision-making (Ted & George, 2013, Neuman, & MacKuen, 2000).

Conclusion

There is still much to be learned and explored regarding the connection between emotions, specifically positive emotions, and their connection with decision-making, information processing and participation in political processes. However, there have been sufficient studies that allow us to see how emotions influence one’s decision to vote, and its correlation with voter turn out as a whole.

According to the research, we see that some emotions within the positive spectrum have more influence on one’s willingness and enthusiasm to vote than others. Feel-good emotions such as happiness and joy generally increase interest in voting due to energy and enthusiasm, which is often channeled into a specific candidate or candidates as well as a desire to participate in the political process. However, due to the strong emotion’s which are being experienced, this can often lead to impulsive, irrational decision making, and the core reason as to why they are voting, as well as who they are voting for, is less likely to be rational and thought through (Zajonc, 1980, Brader & Marcus, 2013).

Conversely, there has not been a lot of research that shows how this spectrum of emotion influences one’s desire to participate in the political process. But due to their overall satisfaction, it is probable that their emotions have as much influence on their desire to vote, as do stronger “feel-good” emotions (Marcus, Neuman, & MacKuen, 2000). However, due to the relative subtleness of these emotions, it is likely that their decision making in regards to why they chose to or not to vote, as well as whom they vote for, would be more rational and less impulsive (Zajonc, 1980, Brader & Marcus, 2013).

The psychology of emotion is a complex science in which is always evolving and changing. It is difficult to say which emotion has the strongest effect on overall voter turn out, due to the fact that one’s emotions are subject to change at any given moment. However, from the research provided, a correlation between strong, positive emotions and a desire to vote has been demonstrated, while there is little to no correlation between subtle positive emotions and a desire to vote. Additionally, strong positive emotions increase the likelihood of irrational and impulsive decision-making, and subtle positive emotions limit irrationality and impulsiveness. 

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