The Science of Emotion: How America Experiences Clinton & Trump – Part II

In the previous segment of our two-part blog series around the 2016 Presidential Election, we gained an overall sense of how people felt emotionally toward Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. In this final segment, we will discover why folks are feeling the way they do about the candidates.

Why Americans feel the way they do about the 2016 Presidential Candidates

To get at the why, we took the eight basic emotions in Plutchik’s model and asked respondents open-end questions about why they felt joy, trust, surprise, anticipation, disgust, anger, fear, and sadness towards the candidates.

For example, if a respondent felt a high level of surprise toward Trump, we asked them, “Why does Donald Trump make you feel surprised?” After collecting all open-end responses, we organized the data based on clear patterns we identified.

Upon review of the study’s results, interesting themes took shape.

Trump surprises Americans the most

Sweepingly, Trump dominated the emotion of surprise across every demographic, primarily due to the outlandish comments he so frequently makes. However, people who felt positively about Trump viewed him as outspoken. They liked that he’s a successful businessman, and believed that he has good intentions for America.

People who felt negatively about Trump viewed him as offensive. They found him offensive because they saw him as bigoted, ignorant, egotistical, dishonest and hateful. The only segment of our data set that had an overall positive emotional view of Trump, was made up of people who identified as Republicans.

Reasons behind positive and negative emotions toward Clinton

People who felt positive emotions toward Clinton perceived her as a qualified leader with ample political experience and good intentions. They were also overwhelmingly positive about the potential of Clinton becoming the first female president.

Those who felt negatively about Clinton viewed her as distrustful, which represents a major theme across all negative emotions. Furthermore, some people believe that she is privileged, and has not been held accountable for what they see as poor past decisions. Another broad reason for negative emotions toward Clinton is due to her pro-choice position on abortion.

Demographic and psychographic factors in emotions

Incidentally, previous studies suggest that most of us have an unconscious preference for our own race. From an evolutionary standpoint, this in-group bias makes sense because staying within our own group makes survival more likely.

According to an analysis from FiveThirtyEight, there’s not much of a partisan gap between Republicans and Democrats when it comes to the likelihood of holding negative racial attitudes. However, past studies do suggest that Republicans possess a higher tolerance for inequality, which may to some degree explain why they seem to be less likely to feel offended by Trump’s comments targeted at various ethnic groups. Of course, another reason could be because certain policies advocated by Trump align with their political views.

How political campaigns can benefit from understanding human emotions

Today’s campaigns could benefit by systematically measuring emotions in the same ways psychologists have been for years. Political campaigns come with a rapidly changing environment, and tracking emotions over time could prove to be a nice addition to the arsenal. For example, a campaign may decide to employ a weekly tracker that monitors fluctuations in the emotions voters experience within a given week.

The insights gained from the open-end questions would supply the reasons behind why emotions are being felt, providing campaigns with the ability to act swiftly when actions need to be taken.

The methodology used in this study has also been successfully leveraged by market researchers across various categories.

In all industries, just like within the political arena, it’s best if emotions are measured and tracked over time. This is because people’s attitudes towards brands, products and services are always changing. For instance, even if a product remains unchanged, industries or environments are always changing, which in turn, might make consumers feel different about an unchanged product. In the long run, when enough emotional measurements are taken over time, companies can understand how consumer emotions are changing with regard to their brands, products, and services. Companies will then be able to compare emotional scores with sales numbers and understand which emotions correlate closest to higher sales.

Other ways to measure emotion in a quantitative study

There are other quantitative solutions similar to the one we employed in this study that measures emotions using faces or emojis instead of words. Research contrasting the use of faces to words revealed no noticeable differences in the data, and we deemed using words would leave less room for confusion.

If we had used faces or emojis, we couldn’t measure emotions such as trust or anticipation. Humans are the only are species that can communicate by written or verbal language, and this extraordinary skill allowed us to expand our list of emotions, and pull more insights from the research.

Measuring discrete emotions in a systematic way has the potential to be a game-changer in the way many research studies are executed, by targeting messages that aim right at the heart of what people are feeling. It’s already being done with great success by some companies, and it is interesting to think about how this type of methodology will evolve in the years to come.

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