Professor probes into the emotions of politics

Paul DeBell, assistant professor of Political Science at Fort Lewis CollegePaul DeBell, assistant professor of Political Science, explores a familiar but little-understood side of politics: the emotions they make us feel.

“It’s a burgeoning field called political psychology,” he says.

Political psychology is essentially the study of how people’s feelings about politics affect their political behavior. This approach emerged in the late ’80s and early ’90s, DeBell explains, but it really took hold as a subfield of political science in the 2000s. “It’s a very new field,” he says. “We don’t actually have a lot of historical data of how people have felt at different times.”

Collecting data on emotional reactions is a primary part of DeBell’s work, as well as an opportunity to involve his students in real-time exit polling. And their research is helping to shape this emerging field.

He grew curious about emotional responses to politics while studying in Hungary during its transition to democracy. As an American, he expected the Hungarians he talked with to be thrilled by their new form of government. Instead, people responded with disgust.

“People would give me the stereotypical disgust face,” he says. “They would go, ‘Ugh,’ and actually give what psychologists call ‘gape face,’ which is a key indicator of the emotional reaction of disgust.”

During his time in Hungary, DeBell observed a connection between this reaction and the rise of extremist movements that challenged the political status quo. “They used a lot of really outrageous rhetoric to fire people up,” he says. “A lot of people in the middle just become disgusted with politics in general.”

“The psychology of disgust is dangerous to have enter politics,” he adds, “because you want to get away from something that disgusts you.”

DeBell is connecting this work to his current research, wherein he is examining similar dynamics in the United States. “I’m seeing a lot of parallels to the way we talk about politics,” he says. “There’s this incredible divide. If all we see in political debate is these two sides accusing each other of terrible things, my theory is that a large group of people will exit politics. Or never enter in the first place.”

He is interested in exploring where this level of discourse comes from, as well as the effects on people’s perceptions of (and engagement with) the American democratic system.

To gather some of his data, he is turning to his senior Research Methods class and offering them on-the-ground experience with exit polling. The Political Science students will be surveying local voters on Election Day, November 8—asking both DeBell’s questions and questions they have formulated for their own senior seminar papers.

He cannot know until he has more data in hand, but DeBell suspects that he will find different results than he did in Hungary. “I think that the emotional story could be quite similar,” he says. “But how it manifests in political behavior, I think will be very different.”

And why is that? As DeBell sees it, the electorate in the United States is uniquely committed to the idea of democracy. “At least as an abstract idea,” he says. “It’s an essential part of our political socialization.”

Ultimately, DeBell’s research matters because the American political system relies on citizens to make political decisions. With so many trends shaping the 21st century, such as globalization and information technologies, DeBell sees a deep importance in understanding why and how citizens engage in political systems.

“We need to think about how those trends change our democratic debates and the effects they have on the people,” he says.

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Tags: political science

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