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Emotions are usually very contagious, especially when expressed by people you like. If someone looks happy, for instance, you become happy too. But when politicians are involved, the dynamic is slightly different. It appears that, if we already have a lot of information about a politician, emotions are less contagious. So says political scientist Maaike Homan, who studies emotions and politics.

Dutch politicians showing frowning and happy faces
Dutch politicians showing frowning and happy faces

PhD candidate Maaike Homan does research on emotions and politics at the University of Amsterdam’s Hot Politics Lab. What is the role of non-verbal communication and emotional expressions? How do politicians’ emotions influence us as voters? ‘A lot of the emotions of politicians reach us, and we remember them. What I want to find out is just how this works and what effect it has on us as voters,’ says Homan.

Emotions are contagious

‘Normally speaking, emotions are highly contagious; they are transmitted from person to person like a virus. For example, if someone is talking and shows a lot of happiness, the other person will also start to look happy. Research that has measured this on the basis of facial expressions shows that we mirror the facial expressions of others, and as we do so, we also experience their emotion ourselves. However, we also know that this mirroring process mainly occurs in response to people we know and like.’

Researcher Maaike Homan with electrodes on her face
Researcher Maaike Homan with electrodes on her face

We don’t always copy the emotions of politicians

‘We studied this contagiousness of emotions in interactions with politicians. We had people watch emotional images of politicians and analysed their expressions using electrodes on their face. Do people mirror politicians they like, and do they adopt their emotions? Do they smile when they see a smile; do they frown when the politician frowns?’

‘We found that a different dynamic is at play when it comes to mirroring the emotions of politicians. It turns out that, for a politician who already enjoys support, it doesn’t matter much what they radiate. People are happy anyway when they see that politician. Whether the politician is smiling or looks angry, people react positively to politicians they support.'

‘Something different happened in the case of politicians that people didn’t identify with and disapproved of. These politicians provoke negative emotions, even if they look happy. So we get angry, we feel aversion and we even laugh at these politicians when they look angry.’

Emotions may have an effect if you don’t know the politician

‘In our study, we looked specifically at politicians that people either support or oppose. In both cases, they already know about these politicians. We didn’t look at reactions to politicians who are completely unknown and whom people still have a neutral attitude towards. With these politicians, it could be the case that emotions have a different effect – that we do mirror their emotions. For instance, happiness might lead voters to feel more positive  about a still unknown politician.’

What emotions do politicians usually express?

‘In politics, we see that happiness and anger are the most commonly used emotions. Anger serves to express dominance in this context. Sadness, on the other hand, is an emotion we don’t see much, as it can be a sign of vulnerability. That is why politicians will rarely display sadness during a debate in Parliament, for example. In a crisis, on the other hand, it is fitting to express sadness, because it signals that you feel empathy. Fear is an emotion we would rather not see at all in politicians. You don’t expect a politician to be afraid.’

‘Well-known examples of politicians who show emotions include Merkel when she emotionally addressed people’s behaviour over Christmas, saying this should not be the last Christmas spent with grandparents. Or take Trump, who constantly expressed a great deal of anger.’

Emotions can help in understanding information

‘Emotions can also play a role in how we process political information. If a politician supports factual information with positive emotions, such as a smile, we tend to process that information more easily. If information is conveyed very rationally and without expression, it can require more energy from us to process the text. It then becomes a purely cognitive process, whereas it’s a very natural thing for us to read emotions. Research by my colleague Gerben van Kleef shows that negative expressions, such as an angry look, can give a very negative charge to what is otherwise a neutral message. In other words, that kind of signal can impact your message.’

It helps to look competent

‘Beside emotions, I also look at other so-called facial cues, external features that people react to or extract information from. There is a classic study where people are shown two photos of two politicians they don’t know and are asked to point out the most competent one. Based purely on appearance, people can decide this within a millisecond, and 70% of people in that study selected the politician who is also more successful in real life.’

‘In short, if people are not yet familiar with a politician, emotions and appearance may play a role in their evaluation of that person. But if we already have a lot of information about a candidate, and already have a preference, these things don’t make a difference in terms of our support.’

Ms M.D. (Maaike) Homan MSc

Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences

Programme group: Challenges to Democratic Representation