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The Psychology of Populism

January 31, 2022 @ 12:30 pm - 1:30 pm

Speaker: Gijs Schumacher (University of Amsterdam) and Rodolfo Sarsfield (Autonomous University of Queretaro)

As populists often operate using emotional messages and try to convince their audiences beyond simple issue positions the psychology of populism received more and more attention. How and why do we react to populist messages? Why do the appeal to some but not to other voters? And, how do these messages drive polarisation? The answers to these questions lie in a complex web of psychological underpinnings of political behaviour and contextual factors. The two papers for this session provide exciting evidence on citizens responses to populists’ rhetoric and misinformation.

Gijs Schumacher (University of Amsterdam) Hot Populism? Affective responses to anti-establishment rhetoric

Populist rhetoric is often portrayed as deeply emotional, aimed at provoking gut-level, affective responses. To date, we know very little about the affective responses that populist rhetoric evokes. It clearly enthuses some voters, while other voters clearly resent it.  But for whom is populist rhetoric, particularly its anti-establishment component arousing, and who has positive or negative affective responses? To analyze this we study affective responses to anti-establishment rhetoric and pro-establishment rhetoric. We follow the circumplex model and conceptualize affective responses as arousal and valence. We measure arousal with skin conductance levels and arousal with facial electromyography (fEMG). For the latter we specifically measured activity of the corrugator (negative) and zygomaticus (positive) muscles. Subsequently, we compare affective responses to these stimuli for different groups: low vs highly-educated, left-wing vs right-wing people; politically cynical individuals vs non-cynical individuals; agreeable people vs disagreeable people and politically sophisticated participants vs unsophisticated ones. We use data(N=393) collected at different sites (a music festival, the university lab, a religious gathering, a biker festival, a museum and a fair).  Our analyses are based on a preregistered analysis plan

Rodolfo Sarsfield (Autonomous University of Queretaro) Misinformation and Populism. Slanted Causal Stories and Populist Attitudes in Mexico

The psychological literature on citizen traits and attitudes (Cesario et al. 2010; Chanley 1994; Tett and Guterman 2000) suggests that populism at the level of citizens is a latent demand that can be activated through context and framing. Indeed, experimental research in political science has shown that politicians’ framing of the social and political world is essential for acti¬vating and directing the demand for populism (Busby, Doyle, Hawkins, and Wiesehomeier 2019: 374; Bos, Van Der Brug, and De Vreese 2013; Hameleers, Bos, and de Vreese 2016; Hawkins, Gubler, Busby, and Carter 2014). For populist attitudes to become active, they require a social context and framing that give meaning to the populist message (Hawkins and Rovira Kaltwasser 2019). This paper explores the impact of (slanted) causal policy stories on populist activation. Causal stories are empirical claims about sequences of events between certain policies and certain outcomes in the social and political world (Stokes 2001; Stone 1989; Walsh and Sloman 2004). Populist rhetoric often contains slanted stories. It portrays issues in a biased way (i.e., misinformation) to make them fit their normative narratives. As I hypothesize, slanted causal policy stories may strengthen support for the populist leader.

President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) has embraced classic populist rhetoric (Sarsfield 2021; Team Populism 2021). Following the ideational definition of populism (Hawkins and Rovira Kaltwasser 2019; Mudde 2004), this inquires into the role of slanted causal policy stories in the activation of populist attitudes at the individual level in Mexico.

To do this, in this paper I employ human and computer automated textual analysis and a survey experiment to explore the relationship between populist rhetoric, slanted causal stories and populist comments in social media, specifically in AMLO’s Facebook and Twitter accounts.




January 31, 2022
12:30 pm - 1:30 pm