Being angry pushes our political positions further apart. So what’s the alternative?

By Leaf Van Boven, David Sherman and Peter Ditto

Protester Bryan Sanders, center left, is punched by a Donald Trump supporter as he is escorted out of Trump’s rally in Tucson on March 19. (Mike Christy/Arizona Daily Star via AP)

Anger is all the rage in American politics these days. Many conservatives are angry about immigration, Obamacare and a government they see as soft on terrorism. Many liberals are angry about income inequality, guns and institutions they believe continue a legacy of discrimination against people based on race, gender and sexual orientation. And many on both sides are angry at the other and at an “establishment” that they feel has been unresponsive to the concerns of average Americans.

The groundswell of American anger has sustained the unexpected presidential candidacies of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. Both candidates have pledged political revolutions — albeit of very different forms — to “make America great again.” Trump, in particular, has tapped a vein of anger at immigrants and the outsourcing of American jobs among those who feel left behind by the global economy. A body of research suggests that conservatives, in particular, are prone to anger; there is some evidence that Trump channels more anger than do other candidates.

How, exactly, does anger affect Americans’ political psychology?

Decades of psychological research show that anger profoundly shapes people’s views about the world and their perceptions of conflict. Anger not only reflects existing political frustrations, it actively exacerbates political polarization.

Most of us will probably agree that when we are angry we do not make our best decisions. When angry, people tend to think in ways that are careless, ideologically defensive and overconfident. Anger prompts people to see politics through the lens of combat rather than cooperation.

One of us (Van Boven) recently published the results of several experiments that illustrate these insidious effects of anger.

Here’s how we measured this

We recruited a diverse sample of 300 Americans who participated in an online study. We measured political identification on a continuous scale (e.g., how strongly do you identify with the Republican Party? 1 = not at all, 7 = very strong). We asked people to describe things from their lives that evoked an emotion. Based on random assignment, one group was asked to describe things that made them angry, such as not being able to find a job; another group was asked to describe things that made them sad, such as the death of a loved one; and a control group was asked to describe things they did yesterday, such as shopping for groceries.

Then we asked people to consider what was, at the time, a recent mass shooting: Jared Lee Loughner had shot 19 people in an attempted assassination of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) on Jan. 8, 2011, in Tucson.

We reminded people that much of the political rancor after the shooting was about the aggressive rhetoric by former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, a Republican, whose political campaign had showed a map with crosshairs targeting Giffords’s district. We asked people to rate how much they agreed with the statement, “Sarah Palin contributed to a climate of political violence, which may have led to violent acts such as the Arizona shooting.”

Those who had been prompted to feel angry were substantially more polarized than the other two groups. Specifically, among people who described things that made them feel angry, the more strongly they identified with the Republican Party, the more they disagreed that Palin incited violence. The correlation between how much people identified as a Republican and how much they disagreed that Palin incited violence was significantly weaker among those who described things that made them feel sad and among people in the control group.

Anger makes Democrats and Republicans seem more divided than they actually are

That’s just among people who were prompted to remember emotional events from their personal lives. Today’s candidates are actively urging voters to feel angry. And angry voters are drawn toward angry candidates. (Sanders: “I am angry, and millions of Americans are angry.” Trump: “I’m very, very angry.”) Candidates’ anger, and encouragement to feel anger, intensifies voters’ already polarized attitudes.

In the mass shooting experiment, we also asked people to estimate how much the typical Democrat and typical Republican would agree that Palin incited violence. Among those who felt angry, the more strongly they identified as a Republican, the more separation they perceived between the typical Republican’s and typical Democrat’s agreement that Republican rhetoric was partly to blame for a climate of political violence. In other words, feeling angry increased both how extreme the attitudes of strong Republicans were and also how vast the division was between Democrats and Republicans.

The fact that anger caused conservative Republicans to believe the country was more polarized is important. In a different study conducted during the 2008 presidential campaign, we found that when Americans perceived other people as polarized in their support for candidates Barack Obama and John McCain, they were more likely to say they would vote. And we recently reported evidence that over the past four decades, the more divided people perceived Democrats and Republicans to be on various topics, the more likely they were to contribute to campaigns, to vote and to get involved in political campaigns.

So, anger causes people to be more polarized, to see more polarization, and, because they see more polarization, to take more political action.

To be sure, Americans have plenty to be angry about. The nation’s challenges are genuine, and its citizens’ frustrations are perfectly understandable. Many middle-class Americans are indisputably struggling to find gainful, rewarding employment. Immigration is a genuine challenge for the country. Is there an alternative, less-destructive emotion than anger?

Would sadness bring us closer together?

Sadness is one possibility. Unlike anger, sadness can prompt careful, sober reflection on complex problems and focus attention on fixing situations rather than assigning blame. In the mass shooting study, for example, when people were made to feel sad, their responses were less politically polarized, and they perceived less political polarization between Democrats and Republicans.

In the Academy Award-winning movie “Inside Out,” sadness, not anger, saves the day. When a girl expresses her sadness, her parents are able to recognize and to share their daughter’s pain. As Dacher Keltner and Paul Ekman, emotion researchers and consultants to the film wrote, “In ‘Inside Out,’ as in real life, sadness prompts people to unite in response to loss.”

This potential for collective sadness to reduce polarization is demonstrated by a series of studies conducted in Israel. Jewish citizens across the political spectrum — those who identified with the left, the right or the center — rated how sad they wanted to feel on Israeli National Memorial Day, a day of remembrance for fallen soldiers and victims of terrorism. Israelis who felt that it was important to be a part of Israeli society preferred group-based sadness, because they thought that feeling sad would bring Israelis closer together.

Sometimes, it seems, people can recognize that sadness can help unite a politically divided country. A quick glance at daily headlines reveals no shortage of potentially saddening problems. What would it take for Americans to embrace shared sadness rather than wallow in divisive anger?

Leaf Van Boven is a professor in the department of psychology and neuroscience at the University of Colorado in Boulder. 

David Sherman is a professor in the department of psychological and brain sciences at the University of California at Santa Barbara. 

Peter Ditto is a professor in the department of psychology and social behavior at the University of California at Irvine.

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