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Elite cues and Emotion

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Principal Investigator(s):

Shana Kushner Gadarian
Syracuse University
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Sample size: 1400
Field period: 02/20/2008 - 02/28/2008



Studies of elite cues rarely consider the effect of emotion on how persuasive cues are to citizens. This paper explores how emotions influence the acceptance of elite cues, focusing on foreign policy. If emotion leads people to hold different opinions than they would otherwise, understanding how emotion conditions the acceptance of cues holds implications for how citizens make sense of the political world and how well democracy functions. To test how emotional imagery affects the acceptance of foreign policy cues, I implemented an experiment that manipulated the type of foreign policy cue, the partisanship of the cue-giver, and the emotional power of the cue. By experimentally examining how emotional appeals influence the acceptance of elite cues, I am able to test an alternative mechanism by which elites may influence the public. The findings indicate that anxiety producing cues can increase the persuasiveness of cues but only when the cue-giver and cue-recipient come from the same political party. However, fear may also lead citizens to adopt opinions contrary to elites’ arguments. This paper reveals that anxiety is most effective when communicated by a trusted elite who shares citizens’ partisanship, even if the foreign policy cue is incongruent with the party’s usual stance. By considering how emotion interacts with the type of foreign policy argument as well as the political identity of cue-givers, this paper complicates our understanding of when elites can persuade citizens on foreign policy.


1. Messages that conflict with respondents’ predispositions will be unpersuasive even when messages originate from an elite that shares the respondents’ partisan identification (an in-party elite).

2. Foreign policy appeals that evoke anxiety may be more persuasive than non-emotional appeals, particularly to members of the out-party.

Experimental Manipulations:

The experiment is a 2 (Democratic v. Republican v. non-identified elite) x 2 (image v. no image) x 2 (hawk v. dove message) design, with 9 conditions.
Treatment conditions: Respondents in the treatment conditions will be told that they will be reading a statement about foreign policy from the website of a congressional candidate. Respondents will either receive a hawkish statement about foreign policy or a dovish statement that will either be matched with an image of terrorism or not. Lastly, respondents will either be told that the candidate is a Democrat or a Republican. In the control condition, respondents read a neutral statement about foreign policy by a candidate not identified by party and with no terrorism image.

Key Dependent Variables:

1. Rate how much federal government should spend on foreign aid
2. Rate how much federal government should spend on defense
3. Self placement on scale of how government should pursue foreign policy from diplomacy and negotiations at 1 to military action at 7
4. Emotional reactions to candidate statement - how angry, sad, and worried respondents felt from 0 (not at all) to 8 (very)
5. Likelihood of voting for candidate with similar foreign policy views
6. Rate how strong the foreign policy statement was

Summary of Findings:

1. There is mixed support for this hypothesis that incongruent positions are more persuasive than congruent positions, especially to members of the out-party because of differences between the reaction of Democratic and Republican subjects.
a. Incongruent out-party cues are rated stronger than congruent out-party cues. The difference in strength ratings is mostly a function of Republicans accepting hawkish cues from the Democratic candidate. Republican subjects are more likely to accept hawkish cues from a Democratic candidate than Democrats are to accept dovish cues from a Republican candidate.
b. Republicans are more likely to say that they would vote for a hawkish Democrat than a dovish Democrat (p<.01) and rate hawkish Democrats as having significantly stronger arguments than dovish Democrats (p<.01). Receiving a hawkish cue from a Democrat has no effect on Republicans’ attitudes.

2. Terrorism images increases the persuasiveness of cues when the cues come from a candidate of the same party. However, fear can also lead respondents to move in the opposite direction of the cue.
a. Anxiety increases the perceived strength of dovish cues (marginally) and hawkish cues (significantly) when the cue comes from a candidate of the same party as the subject. This suggests that anxiety can be utilized to argue for a number of policies, not just hawkish policy.
b. When Republicans hear a dovish cue with emotion from a Republican candidate, they are more hawkish than when the cue does not have emotion.


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