Nothing More than Feelings? How Emotions Affect Attitude Change during the 2016 General Election Debates

Kim Fridkin, Sarah Allen Gershon

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Abstract

We examine the role that emotion plays in understanding people’s reactions to the presidential candidates during two of the three general election debates between Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton. To measure the impact of emotions on people’s attitudes toward the candidates, we run studies at two large public universities. We are able to measure changes in attitudes and responses to the candidates after exposure to each debate. In addition, we explore real-time reaction to the candidates by employing facial expression software to assess people’s emotional responses during the debate. We show that people who watched the first and third presidential debate are much more likely to change their evaluations of the presidential rivals, compared to people who did not view these debates. We also show that people’s displays of emotion are related to their willingness to change their views of the candidates. For example, when people are displaying anger and joy, they are less likely to change their evaluations of the presidential candidates during the course of the debate. Furthermore, we find that when people show fear and sadness, their views of the candidates become less polarized over the length of the debates. These results show how different emotions influence the candidate evaluation process.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1-18
Number of pages18
JournalPolitical Communication
DOIs
StatePublished - 2020

Keywords

  • Emotions
  • presidential debates

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Communication
  • Sociology and Political Science

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