Do you think wealthy people tend to be harder workers? Were you recently stuck in a frustrating traffic jam — or did you stub your toe? Believe it or not, your answer to these questions might be related: A new paper published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin suggests that people are more likely to agree with economically conservative positions when they’re angry.
Indeed, people’s economic opinions might be more malleable than previously thought, said University of Cincinnati professor Anthony Salerno, the paper’s lead author.
At first, the authors had set out to learn whether anger inspired conservative views in general, and were surprised to find that wasn’t the case. “We initially had this intuition that there might be a relationship between anger and conservative views.” Salerno said. “But as we started to investigate further, we actually found that people’s political views are more complex.”
How so? Subjects who were emotionally manipulated to feel mad were more likely to agree with economically conservative statements, but not generally conservative ones. For example, angry subjects tended to agree with statements like: “Individuals with the ability and foresight to earn and accumulate wealth should have the right to enjoy that wealth without government interference.” But they weren’t necessarily more likely to say they value tradition over new ideas — or that science should stay out of politics.
To test their theory, the authors conducted a series of four experiments with more than 1,000 different subjects. In the first, 538 undergraduates were asked to score themselves on how prone they were to anger and how competitive they were before they were given an ideological assessment. Those who scored high for anger and competitiveness were more likely to register as economically conservative.
Then, in a series of follow-up experiments, authors had subjects do similar ideological assessments — after having their emotions manipulated through the use of a writing task. People who were asked to recall a time they were angry were more likely to espouse economically conservative views or support economically conservative candidates than those in a control group asked to write about a time they were afraid, or about their daily routine.
Importantly, subjects in the later experiments were told the two tests were unrelated. Salerno said this allowed authors to assess the effects of incidental anger — in other words, anger at a specific event and which is usually addressed right away. Examples might include a frustrating commute where you yell at the driver who cut you off, or confronting a friend who didn’t take your advice seriously.
Why anger affects your economic views
How can something as innocuous as an annoying commute really influence your economic beliefs? It has to do with the relationship between anger and competition, Salerno said: When wrathful feelings are aroused, people are less likely to feel generous about sharing their personal wealth.
For much of human history, this link has served an important purpose — angry, competitive people are more likely to win in a battle over scarce resources. “You have all these different instances... as the source of anger, and yet the overall experience of anger still has that same general effect... making people more competitive,” Salerno said. “Anger helps people correct wrongs in the environment.”
But this link presents a problem for the modern-day voter, he explained, because we’re not consciously aware that it may be influencing our decisions. In other words, we might risk bringing our stubbed toe with us to the polls.
One piece of good news? Simply being aware of this effect can diminish it: “The second people are made aware of the influence, it stops having an effect [and] people correct for it,” Salerno said.
Plus, the research suggests people can be pushed in the other direction, too — after being prompted to think of a time they were grateful, subjects were more likely to agree with more economically liberal views in support of sharing or redistributing resources, for example.
In short, politicians have long used research on the relationship between emotions and political views to craft better ads, for example, by stoking feelings like fear or generosity. But the tricks marketers use are not always so obvious, and by being aware of the more subtle ways you can be manipulated, you can make better informed choices with your money and — it would seem — at the ballot box.
Sign up for the Payoff — your weekly crash course on how to live your best financial life.