Jump over the site's section navigation.

Decoding The Psychology Of The Government Shutdown

Tue, 15 Oct 2013 11:07:17 CDT
By: IPR's Alex Keefe

Decoding The Psychology Of The Government Shutdown All the news about the government shutdown might have you feeling angry or anxious. Or maybe you think you don't care. The study of political psychology suggests you do have some response, and your earliest impulse could have a big impact on how you act later. IPR's Alex Keefe explains.

So we're gonna do a little experiment here.

I'm gonna play a couple sound bytes, and you are gonna react to them.


This first one is President Barack Obama - he's a Democrat - talking on October third about the shutdown.

OBAMA: "This is not about spending, and this isn't about fiscal responsibility. This whole thing is about one thing: the Republican obsession with dismantling the Affordable Care Act and denying affordable health insurance to millions of Americans."

Okay - and the second one is Republican Speaker of the U-S House, John Boehner, talking a week ago - also about the shutdown.

BOEHNER: "Frankly, by refusing to negotiate, Harry Reid and, uh, the President are putting our country on a pretty dangerous path."

So maybe the hair on the back of your neck is starting to stand up - maybe you're already thinking of ways to rebut what you're hearing.

Political psychologists say your initial reaction to political news - like the soundbytes we just played - could have a big impact on how you ultimately feel about an issue - like the shutdown.

George Marcus - from Williams College in Massachusetts - says, to understand this, you gotta slow things waaaaaaay down - because your reaction started well before those soundbytes were even finished playing.

MARCUS: "I hear the words at 500 milliseconds. My brain has figured out the significance of those words in 30 to 50 milliseconds."

Now, to give you an idea: that's about ten times faster than the blink of a human eye - way faster than the spaces between the words I'm speaking to you right now.

Political psychologist Charles Taber, from Stony Brook University in New York, says this super-fast reaction is called "hot cognition."

And for about 80 to 90 percent of you, it's going to be influenced by an existing political bias.

If the bias makes you angry at the other party - Taber's research suggests that anger could have a longer-term impact on how you think about a political issue

TABER: "Presenting a smiley cartoon face, or a frowny cartoon face on a computer screen for 13 milliseconds has discernable impacts on people's views towards immigration policy measured 30 minutes later."


So, you angry listeners - just hang tight.

Because now we're gonna play another soundbyte.

This one comes from Christine Lagarde - she's the head of the International Monetary Fund.

Here she is on NBC's "Meet the Press," talking about what happens if Congress can't agree on extending the U-S borrowing limit - and America defaults on its debts.

LAGARDE: "It could mean massive disruption the world over, and we would be at risk of tipping yet again into recession."

So maybe you think that sounds pretty serious - maybe you don't immediately know WHAT to think.

Political psychologists like George Marcus would say you're in a state of anxiety.

MARCUS: "And what anxiety basically says is, Not this time, buddy. You better make a concerted effort to pay attention here, 'cause this situation isn't normal. And so the normal habits of thought and action won't work."

So Marcus says you don't automatically retreat to your old beliefs like the angry people - you start searching out new information, looking for ways to explain what's going on so you can resolve this anxiety.

And here's where it gets sticky.

Marcus' research shows you anxious people actually become LESS partisan - and more open to hearing new ideas. Taber's research, meanwhile, shows just the opposite - that anxious voters just want to reinforce what they felt during those initial few milliseconds.

Whatever the outcome, the angry people could be motivated to actually act on their anger come election time, says David Redlawsk, a political psychologist from Rutgers.

REDLAWSK: "People do go out to vote because they're angry. Because they wanna throw out the bums, to get rid of them all."

As for you anxious people?

Redlawsk says your vote likely depends how you resolve that anxiety.

But that may not be the end of it.

REDLAWSK: "Something else will happen between now and then. And, you know, we push this crisis aside and we move on to the next one."

After all, there are a whole lotta milliseconds between now at November 2014.


Support Your Public Radio Station