Monday, November 24, 2008


In what people know, sometimes what they know is how a candidate or public figure makes them feel. Emotion, or affect as it's called in social psychology, is an important part of how we process information.

The American National Election Studies have long asked a series of Affect questions about the major candidates. In other words, how a candidate made you feel. The affective responses are angry, hopeful, afraid, and proud.

What got me thinking of these was a graph in the latest copy of a book called Social Cognition that described a two-factor solution for the structure of Affect. I won't try to draw it here, but think of two intersecting lines. At the top is Strong Engagement and at the bottom is Disengagement. From left to right is Pleasantness and Unpleasantness. Then they put all these cool affective tags.

At the very top, in Strong Engagement, is "aroused" and "astonished" while at the bottom the Disengagement is "quiet" and "still." Okay, fine. At the far left in Pleasant is "content" and "satisfied" and a lot of others, and at the far right is "grouchy" and "sad" and the like. The fun is when you get high in one and low in the other, or some other combination. You'll find "enthusiastic" in the Strong Engagement and Pleasant quadrant, for example, or "hostile" when engagement is high but Unpleasantness has kicked in.

So look at the four ANES affective responses. Where do they fit? Best I can tell, all fall in the top half of the two-factor solution, where positive or negative affect come into play with Strong Engagement. In other words, the ANES affective responses fail to measure Disengagement that one may feel in relation to a presidential candidate.

That kinda makes sense, that you're trying to measure engaged affect, but I suspect we're also missing a lot here, a sense of alienation in affective response. If a candidate makes you feel relaxed or calm, we don't really get that, unless of course you count the opposite or low scores on the other affective tags. I'm not sure it works well, trying that.

What's this to do with media and political knowledge? A great deal given how affect and cognition can relate to one another, and the media play a significant role in not only what people know, but also how they feel.

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