Whether he knows it or not, President Trump’s signature emotional, off-the-cuff tweeting style has a particular effect on the people who read his tweets. According to a new study, highlighted by the Verge, the presence of moral-emotional language in political messaging corresponds with a much wider distribution of that message among people with similar political leanings. The researchers have a name for this process: moral contagion.
As part of their study, researchers looked at more than half a million tweets by a number of different people on a number of polarizing political issues, including gun control, LGBTQ rights, and climate change. They found that those tweets that included emotional (“fear,” “hate”) or moral (“duty,” “responsibility”) words were much more likely to go viral among the audiences they targeted than those that were more clinical, or absent of emotion. The more passionate the feeling, the more widely the tweets seemed to spread — the use of words associated with love or anger were more effective than those that used words which indicated sadness or disgust. The way in which those words are used matters, too: Trump may say “Sad!” a lot, but context suggests he rarely means it literally, instead using it to indicate outrage.
These findings are consistent with the argument made by many political psychologists, like Drew Westen, author of the 2008 book The Political Brain, which is, essentially, that the voters’ feelings matter. A lot. Though the extent to which feelings play a role in driving our elections might dismay those who consider themselves dispassionate critical thinkers, the growing body of evidence in this field makes it increasingly difficult to argue that facts are more important to more people than feelings. Sad!