Acquiring Political Information: Effects of Threat and Emotion on Learning

Information about politics has been shown to be important for a number of aspects of civic competence and participation. It is therefore critical to understand how people acquire political information. People are sometimes exposed to new information in highly charged environments: War, terrorism, natural disasters, crime, financial crises. Situations like this are likely to generate anxiety which can have significant effects on people’s ability to learn. Drawing on data from a three-wave national telephone panel study conducted between the fall of 2001 and the spring of 2003 in the U.S., we test the proposition that anxiety’s effects on learning is detrimental when personal threat is high. We focus on respondents’ ability to learn factual information about Afghanistan and about Iraq prior to and during the wars. We find that anxiety hindered learning about Iraq among those who felt most personally threatened by terrorism some months before the war. These effects are most pronounced in periods of less saturated news environment when learning is moderately difficult. We discuss the implications of our findings for research on political learning and emotional reactions to politics.

Stanley Feldman is Professor of Political Science and Associate Director of the Center for Survey Research at Stony Brook University. His PhD is from the University of Minnesota. He is the past president of the International Society for Political Psychology and was president of the Political Methodology section of the American Political Science Association. He has served on the Board of Overseers of the American National Election Studies and was a co-editor of the journal Political Psychology. His research interests include political ideology and values, personality and politics, authoritarianism, prejudice and intolerance, and emotional responses to politics.

Date & time

Tue 12 Aug 2014, 12am


Building 24, Copland, Room 1171, LJ Hume Centre


Professor Stanley Feldman, Stony Brook University


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