The relevance of emotions in presidential public appeals: anger's conditional effect on perceived risk and support for military interventions.

Author:Villalobos, Jose D.
 
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Research on political discourse and communication has shown that emotioninducing appeals are selectively deployed by political leaders in attempting to boost their approval ratings, garner support for their policy goals, and/or divert the public's attention during times of domestic turmoil (De Castella, McGarty, and Musgrove 2009). Within the U.S. context, presidents often resort to emotive appeals in wielding the bully pulpit with the expectation that it may help rally public support for their political and policy agendas, including the use of military force. (1) For example, in his remarks on March 18, 2011, President Barack Obama sought empathy from Americans as he conveyed key events unfolding in Libya, particularly in describing how civilians were suffering at the hands of Muammar Qadhafi's oppressive, violent regime (Obama 2011):

Over the last several weeks, the world has watched events unfold in Libya with hope and alarm. Last month, protesters took to the streets across the country to demand their universal rights and a government that is accountable to them and responsive to their aspirations. But they were met with an iron fist ... Instead of respecting the rights of his own people, Qadhafi chose the path of brutal suppression. Innocent civilians were beaten, imprisoned, and in some cases killed. Peaceful protests were forcefully put down. Hospitals were attacked and patients disappeared. A campaign of intimidation and repression began. President Obama then noted further threats of violence facing the people of Libya and offered a justification for possible U.S. intervention (Obama 2011):

And just yesterday, speaking of the city of Benghazi, a city of roughly 700,000 people, he [Qadhafi] threatened, and I quote: "We will have no mercy and no pity"--no mercy on his own citizens ... Now, here's why this matters to us. Left unchecked, we have every reason to believe that Qadhafi would commit atrocities against his people. Many thousands could die. A humanitarian crisis would ensue. To what extent might these types of emotion-inducing presidential appeals influence the public mood and lend credence to a president's policy objectives, both with respect to a particular policy option (here, military intervention in civil conflict) as well as to the president's broader policy agenda (i.e., attempting to take advantage of such emotion-driven public rallies to seek out other foreign and domestic policy objectives)? Presumably, such presidential appeals could lead to emotional arousal and in turn increase public support for specific policies. However, past works are split on whether and how emotive stimuli matter and it is not known if emotional arousal may lead to a spillover effect that influences public support for other policies connected to a president's broader policy agenda. Furthermore, prior studies on emotions have generally focused on military interventions where a direct national security threat exists, failing to consider other instances where there is no direct or immediate threat to the United States (e.g., military action taken for humanitarian purposes). Further still, one must consider the extent to which such potential opinion shifts might actually help facilitate an intervention, particularly with regard to a president's strategic positioning at home and abroad (see Edwards 2009; 2012).

In this study, we employ an experimental design situated in the context of a best test "least likely" case (2) to investigate whether the thematic relevance of emotive stimuli (i.e., when emotional responses are appraised as being policy relevant versus policy irrelevant) embedded in presidential speeches influences people's risk perceptions and support regarding military interventions in civil conflict. For instance, does anger tend to lower people's perceptions of risk and increase support for an aggressive foreign policy option regardless of its source? Or do the thematic underpinnings of anger matter? That is, do the specific contents of a presidential speech that trigger a target emotion--such as an emotion-inducing story embedded in a presidential speech concerning a civil conflict abroad--affect public opinion? We argue that the effectiveness of presidential public appeals in garnering support for a given policy partly depends on the thematic relevance of the emotion-eliciting cues presidents employ.

Thematic Relevance of Emotions

The systematic examination of the link between emotions and politics is a growing area of research. (3) Scholars have examined emotions across a wide range of topics such as political awareness and attentiveness (e.g., Marcus, Neuman, and MacKuen 2000); political participation and mobilization (Valentino et al. 2011); political information processing and decision making (e.g., Redlawsk 2002); risk perceptions (e.g., Lerner et al. 2003); political attitudes (e.g., Brady and Sniderman 1985; Banks and Valentino 2012); reactions to political issues and events (e.g., Conover and Feldman 1986); policy preferences (e.g., Huddy et al. 2005); and conflict behavior, peace negotiations, and conflict resolution (e.g., Halperin et al. 2011; Sabucedo et al. 2011). These studies demonstrate that emotions have a significant influence over cognitive and behavioral processes and outcomes, including memory elicitation, evaluation, political judgment, and political action (see Marcus 2000; Brader 2006).

Initial conceptualizations of emotion portray it as falling along a single bipolar dimension that runs from pleasant to unpleasant (valence) and gains intensity (arousal) as one shifts from the center toward the poles (Brader 2006, 52; see, e.g., Zajonc 1998; Ferguson and Wee 2000). However, some scholars prefer a two-dimensional valence model that conceptualizes emotions as positive and negative (Huddy, Feldman, and Cassese 2007, 204; see, e.g., Tellegan, Watson, and Clark 1999; Watson and Clark 1992). According to the latter model, positive emotions are associated with the approach system motivating one to achieve positive outcomes for pleasure and reward whereas negative emotions are linked to the avoidance system activated to elude negative outcomes in order to protect against pain and harm (e.g., Cacioppo, Gardner, and Berntson 1999; Watson et al. 1999).

In comparison to valence-based approaches, emotion-specific approaches propose that different emotions sharing the same valence (such as anger and fear) may nevertheless have dissimilar (or even opposite) effects on decision-making processes and outcomes (see, e.g., Bodenhausen, Sheppard, and Kramer 1994; DeSteno et al. 2000; Huddy, Feldman, and Cassese 2007; Lerner and Keltner 2000). To elaborate, although fear and anger are both negative emotions, fear is linked to appraisals of uncertainty and lack of control whereas anger is associated with appraisals of certainty about the source of a threat and feelings of personal control over the situation (Lazarus 1991; Huddy et al. 2005; Lerner and Keltner 2000; 2001; Smith and Ellsworth 1985). Such distinct appraisal tendencies associated with different emotions are also connected to variations in information acquisition patterns and cognitive processing, as well as assessments of risk. Specifically, several studies find that anxiety and fear are likely to raise one's level of cognitive effort, vigilance, and perceived risks whereas higher levels of anger tend to trigger more superficial information searches, heuristic-based cognitive processing, and lower risk assessments (Bodenhausen, Sheppard, and Kramer 1994; Lerner and Keltner 2000; 2001; Lerner et al. 2003; Marcus, Neuman, and MacKuen 2000; Mackuen et al. 2010; Valentino et al. 2008). Regarding policy preferences, studies show that anxiety and fear elicit a preference for more precautionary and defensive policy actions while anger increases people's support for retaliatory and aggressive policy responses (Huddy, Feldman, and Cassese 2007; Sadler et al. 2005; Skitka et al. 2006). Anger is also more closely associated with a reluctance to consider alternatives, an unwillingness to engage in diplomacy and negotiation, and the rejection of compromise in dealing with political conflicts (Sabucedo et al. 2011; Mackuen et al. 2010). (4)

If anger is likely to increase support for aggressive policies and decrease risks associated with such policy options, a president who plans to resort to the use of force to deal with a conflict situation may strategically seek to invoke feelings of anger among citizens to garner public approval. Going back to our research question, does it matter whether presidents choose to invoke anger using emotive cues directly related to the targeted policy in their public appeals or can anger evoked even about unrelated policy issues be effective and, if so, what would be the implications for their policy agendas? To answer this question, we consider two alternative theoretical perspectives: (1) the independence of emotions versus (2) the thematic relevance of emotions.

Applying the former perspective, one may argue that the effects of emotions are independent from their sources such that a particular emotional state (such as being angry) will have a uniform effect on one's decision-making irrespective of the thematic content of the emotive trigger as its source (e.g., Gasper and Clore 1998; Goldberg, Lerner, and Tetlock 1999; Schwarz and Clore 1983; 1996). According to this view, appraisal tendencies generated by specific emotions can persist and spill over to influence one's political judgment on a given issue even when the target of judgment is unrelated to the emotion-eliciting stimulus (Gasper and Clore 1998; Goldberg, Lerner, and Tetlock 1999; Johnson and Tversky 1983).

Alternatively, it is plausible to argue that the effects of a certain emotional state on one's decision making is conditional on whether the specific source of that emotional state is thematically related to the policy issue at hand...

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