Home Society & Culture Crowd and Context Matter for Populist Politicians Like Farage, Says Aston University Psychologist

Crowd and Context Matter for Populist Politicians Like Farage, Says Aston University Psychologist

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Populist politicians seeking to influence voters cannot rely on their own charisma to win over voters, as it is not just the message and facial behaviour that matter but the reactions of other listeners, according to new research by Aston University psychologist Dr Carl Senior.

Dr Senior carried out the research with Professor Patrick A. Stewart from the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, USA, and as the UK heads towards a general election this week, with many would-be members of parliament seeking votes, it is particularly pertinent.

The new research shows that social context is hugely important. A politician can deliver a popular message with positive facial displays, and this has long been thought to be enough to inspire voters. However, Dr Senior and Professor Stewart have shown that if those listening to the message do not respond positively, for example, if they boo or jeer, then this will affect the feelings of those around them, who will in turn also feel less positive about the message.

If a politician wants to achieve the best outcome and spread their message most effectively, they should ensure that they are seen or filmed with audiences who react positively to their message.

For the research, Dr Senior and Dr Stewart took doctored versions of a 1-minute, 20-second clip of populist parliamentary candidate Nigel Farage, who is standing for election as a member of the nationalist right-wing party Reform UK, and showed them to 683 volunteers from the UK and the US. The clip showed him criticising UK migration policy. Of the five versions of the clip, one version was undoctored, one clip had applause added, one clip had laughter added, one clip had booing added, and one clip had laughter and booing added.

The researchers gave viewers a questionnaire to appraise the performance of Farage, including his leadership traits such as competence and warmth, how pleasant they thought he was, if he met expectations, and what they thought of the topic he was discussing.

The viewers of the clips, with laughter and applause, reacted more positively to the clip compared to the undoctored control version. The viewers who saw clips that included booing responded more negatively.

The study found that viewers consistently appraised Farage’s video critique of UK immigration policies in terms of familiarity, predictability, and simplicity, largely unaffected by audience reactions. However, UK participants perceived Farage as more predictable compared to their US counterparts, indicating some influence of national identity.

Audience laughter significantly enhanced perceptions of pleasantness and meeting goals in Farage’s remarks, highlighting the impact of emotional vocalisations on appraisal.

Lastly, both national origin and political ideology significantly shaped perceptions, with UK participants viewing Farage more negatively in various dimensions compared to US participants, and conservatism generally fostering more positive appraisals of his statements.

The research challenges the conventional understanding of emotions, known as basic emotion theory. Basic emotion theory describes how people process particular facial expressions, such as happy, sad, or disgusted. The basic expressions span cultures, races, and continents. Facial expressions act as a communication device.

There are, however, limits to basic emotion theory, and the researchers believe that the research with Farage instead backs up an alternate theory, the componential processing model. This model suggests that any communication and social exchange via a facial expression must be interpreted within the specific context, not just by the interpretation of a discrete set of facial muscular contractions.

Dr Senior said: “It appears crucial for politicians to be seen delivering speeches to audiences that react positively. This not only enhances their perceived pleasantness but also suggests to voters that they can achieve their goals and meet voter expectations effectively.”

© Copyright 2014–2034 Psychreg Ltd