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Sept. 21, 2020, 12:51 p.m.

“Politics as a chronic stressor”: News about politics bums you out and can make you feel ill — but it also makes you take action

“Daily political events consistently evoked negative emotions [which] predicted worse day-to-day psychological and physical health, but also greater motivation to take action aimed at changing the political system that evoked the negative emotions in the first place.”

Who would buy a product that reliably makes them sad, or anxious, or worried, or overwhelmed?

You wouldn’t go to a restaurant you knew made you feel ill, or listen to music that drove you up a wall, or go to a gym where the equipment gives you a new muscle tear every visit. You might do it once or twice, maaaaybe three times — but it’s unlikely you’d keep signing up for more pain, day after day.

And yet for many people, that’s exactly what they experience reading the news — especially news about politics. The act of consuming political news is, for them, just misery — a daily reminder of terrible things over which they have essentially no control. That’s particularly true for people who don’t have a strong attachment to a party or candidate; committed partisans at least get the occasional joy of seeing their side win the news cycle — for everybody else, it’s just a lot of noise.

We’ve written before about the phenomenon of news avoidance and the evidence that it’s on the rise in many places, thanks to some mix of the coronavirus, Donald Trump, and the general sense that politics has gotten uglier. And some new research out of Canada shows some of the ways political news leaves people down in the dumps.

The paper’s by Matthew Feinberg, Brett Q. Ford, Sabrina Thai, Arasteh Gatchpazian, and Bethany Lassetter. (All but Thai are at the University of Toronto; Thai is at Brock University.) It’s a preprint, meaning it hasn’t yet faced peer review, but here’s the abstract, emphases mine:

Politics and its controversies have permeated everyday life, but the daily impact of politics is largely unknown. Here, we conceptualize politics as a chronic stressor with important consequences for people’s daily lives.

We used longitudinal, daily-diary methods to track U.S. participants as they experienced daily political events across two weeks (Study 1: N=198, observations=2,167) and, separately, across three weeks (Study 2: N=811, observations=12,790) to explore how daily political events permeate people’s lives and how they cope with this influence of politics.

In both studies, daily political events consistently evoked negative emotions, which corresponded to worse psychological and physical well-being, but also increased motivation to take political action (e.g., volunteer, protest) aimed at changing the political system that evoked these emotions in the first place.

Understandably, people frequently tried to regulate their politics-induced emotions; and successfully regulating these emotions using cognitive strategies (reappraisal and distraction) predicted greater well-being, but also weaker motivation to take action.

Although people can protect themselves from the emotional impact of politics, frequently-used regulation strategies appear to come with a trade-off between well-being and action. To examine whether an alternative approach to one’s emotions could avoid this trade-off, we measured emotional acceptance in Study 2 (i.e., accepting one’s emotions without trying to change them) and found that successful acceptance predicted greater daily well-being but no impairment to political action.

Overall, this research highlights how politics can be a chronic stressor in people’s daily lives, underscoring the far-reaching influence politicians have beyond the formal powers endowed unto them.

In the two studies, Feinberg et al. asked more than 1,000 Americans to keep a daily diary for either 14 or 21 days. At the end of each day, they were to record the political story they’d thought about most that day and their emotional responses to it. They were also asked to report other more general details about their psychological and physical well-being and their motivation to take any political action.

Here’s an example of one person’s 14-day diary. The blue line marks how negative their emotional response to politics was that day — here, high means more negative, low means more positive. The red dashed line is a general measure of the person’s psychological well-being. You can see that the two lines seem to move in similar ways. On days 4 and 8, when they didn’t think about politics, they were feeling pretty good, all things considered. On the days with big political news — a government shutdown, a Dreamer being deported, a major protest — not so much.

The diaries were kept in two waves, one in late 2017/early 2018 and one in late 2018 (during debates over Donald Trump’s impeachment). What did the researchers find in that first wave?

Results indicate that day-to-day political events commonly evoke negative emotional reactions.

When thinking about the most salient political event of the day — even though our prompt was designed to be neutral and did not specifically ask about negative events — people felt at least some degree of any negative emotion (i.e., above the lowest scale point) on 81% of the days and felt stronger levels of any negative emotion (i.e., at or above the scale midpoint) on 45% of the days.

And those negative emotions were indeed associated with feeling worse, psychologically and physically. “Similarly, within-person effects indicated that when participants felt more negative emotion on a given day than they typically felt in response to a political event, they experienced worse psychological well-being and worse physical well-being.” And the results remained robust even after controlling for variables like age, gender, income, and ethnicity.

Politics can really ruin your day, in other words. In this study, Democrats and liberals had more negative emotional reactions to politics than did Republicans and conservatives — but it’s hard to discern how much of that is about partisanship and how much is just about the specific content of political news on the days being measured.

With those surveys in the books, researchers went back for a larger and more diverse group of people a few months later. The first study was specifically of people who said they think about politics on a daily basis; the second one didn’t have that requirement. Again, it found that politics tends to bum people out:

People felt at least some degree of any negative emotion (i.e., above the lowest scale point) on 75% of the days and felt stronger levels of any negative emotion (i.e., at or above the scale midpoint) on 53% of the days.

Do negative emotions about politics predict worse well-being? Replicating Study 1, stronger negative emotional responses to politics, in turn, were associated with worse psychological and physical well-being at the between-person and within-person level.

Many of the subjects reported using some sort of strategy to deal with their negative emotions, like “cognitive reappraisal; e.g., reminding oneself that a situation is not as bad as it seems, or that even bad situations can have silver linings,” “distraction; e.g., tuning out of distressing conversations, or changing the channel from upsetting news stories,” or choosing to “hide their emotions from others in daily life (expressive suppression).”

For those of us in the news media, distraction is the most germane technique, being tied to news avoidance. In the first study, subjects reported trying to distract themselves from politics on 80 percent of days. Those who did felt better, reporting lower levels of negative emotion, but crunching the numbers found successful distraction wasn’t a “significant predictor of negative emotions.”

In the second study, subjects reported trying to distract themselves on 56 percent of days, down from the first one. (Seems logical, given that the second study included people who think about politics less often.)

But…successfully distracting one’s self from politics also, predictably, reduced subjects’ interest in taking any form of political action — attending a protest, volunteering for a campaign, donating to a candidate, calling their senators, and so on. In other words, political news might make you feel miserable, but that misery can be very useful in prompting you to do something about it. That finding proved consistent among Democrats, Republicans, and independents.

I should note that this paper looks at the impact of thinking about day-to-day political happenings — not, explicitly, the day-to-day consumption of political journalism. But the two are so tightly intertwined that it’s hard to put much analytical space between them; media reporting is overwhelmingly the conduit that brings these political happenings to their attention.

Although most day-to-day political events occur far away in state and national capitals, politics and its controversies have become a salient part of everyday life for many in the general public. The day’s political events are a common, if not central, topic of conversation in both online and offline contexts. Political discord and scandal headline the news cycle, are joked about on late-night TV programs, and are debated at the dinner table and around the office water cooler. Yet as central as politics is to people’s everyday experience, its impact on people’s daily life is largely unknown.

[…]

In line with the conceptualization of politics as a chronic stressor, we found that daily political events consistently evoked negative emotions in participants. These negative emotions predicted worse day-to-day psychological and physical health, but also greater motivation to take action aimed at changing the political system that evoked the negative emotions in the first place at both the between-person (interpersonal difference) and within-person (intrapersonal difference) levels.

Furthermore, we found that people commonly employed emotion regulation strategies to cope with this chronic stressor. Particularly when successfully using reappraisal, people experienced greater well-being, but less motivation to take political action, pointing to a fundamental trade-off between protecting oneself and taking action that arises when people regulate their politics-related emotions.

In Study 2, we found a potential means for overcoming this trade-off: Participants who used emotional acceptance — a coping strategy that involves accepting emotions rather than trying to change them — experienced higher levels of well-being, but showed no signs of decreased motivation to take action. In all, our results highlight the broad impact daily political events have on the average person, revealing the political is quite personal.

[…]

Our research shows that using certain commonly used forms of emotion regulation to protect well-being can come at a fundamental cost to taking action — an important trade-off that can occur when individuals successfully down-regulate their negative emotional responses to daily politics…

For instance, feeling outrage toward an injustice might initially compel people to join a street protest, but if they use reappraisal to convince themselves the justice system will prosecute the perpetrators, their outrage may diminish along with the likelihood of actually joining the protest.

Similarly, if they employ distraction, possibly because they find their outrage too intense to reappraise, they may divert their attention from the injustice, thereby minimizing their likelihood of taking to the street.

Such insights are important for activists seeking to mobilize widespread collective action. To effectively harness people’s negative emotions, activists need people to not reduce those emotions. Finding strategies that achieve this end should help activists facilitate greater action. Yet, it may come at the expense of people’s well-being, suggesting a complicated ethical trade-off between mobilizing people for a cause and impairing the well-being of those taking action.

Journalists who write about politics or who program cable news shows face a similar trade-off: Making people mad at the “other side” can be an effective way to harvest their attention — but it can come at the cost of making them miserable.

Some people are news junkies, and they’ll keep coming back for more. But others are happy to go watch Netflix instead.

POSTED     Sept. 21, 2020, 12:51 p.m.
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