Release date: Jan. 25, 2005

Emotions, Not Facts, Form Basis of Political Opinion

An Emory University study has found that when it comes to forming opinions and making judgments on hot political issues, most people don't let facts get in the way of their decision-making. The research, led by Emory psychology professor Drew Westen, tested whether people make decisions based on emotional bias or fact, and emotions won by a landslide.

"In high-stakes, emotionally charged political situations, people respond to ambiguity not by consulting the data but by consulting their emotional preferences, prejudices and predilections," Westen says. "The data suggests that perhaps the only way for any of us to make reasoned judgments about political matters is to identify and admit our own biases, maintain constant vigilance to detect and counteract them, and be particularly vigilant and circumspect when we find that ''voting our conscience' just happens to coincide with voting along party lines."

The research involved five studies that covered American political crises during the past six years. Westen looked at how people judged the issues based on both the relevant facts (cognitive constraints) and also how the subjects felt about the issues and the people involved, such as Presidents Clinton and Bush (emotional constraints).

In all five, cognitive and emotional constraints contributed in predicted ways to people's judgments. However, competing emotional pulls (such as toward the two parties, human rights and the military) accounted for much of the variance in seemingly "cold" cognitive judgments. Examples include whether or not Clinton should have been impeached, or whether the evidence produced by a soldier charged with abuses at Abu Ghraib prison crossed the threshold for allowing his lawyers to interrogate senior civilian officials.

Although about 15 percent of respondents were found to have primarily considered evidence and fact when forming their opinions, researchers could correctly predict 80 percent of the time how a person would view an issue based on their opinions of the Bush administration, the Republican or Democratic parties, the military and human-rights groups.

"If a person is paying attention enough to think about something, he or she usually has some motivational or emotional interest in it. In this sense, every act of cognition is simultaneously an act of emotion regulation. The more ambiguous the data, and the more emotionally significant the outcome, the more one can expect emotion regulation to trump information processing," Westen says.


Emory University is known for its demanding academics, outstanding undergraduate college of arts and sciences, highly ranked professional schools and state-of-the-art research facilities. For nearly two decades Emory has been named one of the country's top 25 national universities by U.S. News & World Report. In addition to its nine schools, the university encompasses The Carter Center, Yerkes National Primate Research Center and Emory Healthcare, the state's largest and most comprehensive health care system.

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