Damla Ergun and Corrie Hunt are doing their best to make people anxious. That's not a function of nasty dispositions. They do it to gain understanding of civic participation in stressful times.
Both are in the Ph.D. program in social psychology, and their groundbreaking studies of how emotions, particularly anxiety, influence political decisions earned them an opportunity to present their research in Paris this year at the annual meeting of the International Society for Political Psychology.
In experiments, Ergun and Hunt ask subjects to "think about a time you were anxious and write about that time as if you were living it." Then they measure the participants' emotional reactions and gauge how their attitudes were influenced. They also study anxiety-related data from national surveys.
A key question in their research is whether anxiety causes voters to cling to partisan preferences or to open up to alternative political choices. Being savvy about politics is an important dividing line emerging from the research. People who know little about politics and the issues appear more likely to shop around when they're stressed out. "High-knowledge voters are more invested, and they have more resources," Hunt says. "They can engage in defense mechanisms and counterarguments, so they can reduce their anxiety by actually clinging more to their party."
A second major question addressed in their studies is how emotions enter into the complex mix of moral values and political attitudes. "We are interested in whether emotions interact with people's moral foundations to predict attitude positions," Ergun says.
They have questions yet to answer before candidates and civic groups can make use of the findings. What isn't in doubt at this time of war and economic crisis is the significance of asking the questions.