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The Emotions of Political Protest

Commentators reflecting on why people voted for Brexit or Trump often say that emotion got the better of reasoned decision making. Former Prime Minister John Major talked of emotion trumping reality in the Brexit debate.

I have always felt that trying to separate the emotional from the rational in this way is a false dichotomy. So my interest was piqued when I listened to James Jasper talking about 'thinking feeling.' He argues that trying to separate thinking and feeling is unhelpful and says the cognitive development of ideas and decisions is the result of hundreds of processes of thinking feeling. In essence emotion is part of the decision making process.

James Jasper has spent over twenty years researching the emotions of protest and has just published a new book 'The Emotions of Protests'.  I haven't read the book yet but this is what I took away from his recent interview with New Books in Psychology.

Jasper categorises the different types of emotions that can motivate people's political decisions such as voting or taking part in protests, for example;

  • Reflexive emotions
  • Affective Commitments
  • Moral Commitments
  • Moods
These emotions are complex and interrelated. Some are short term whereas others are longer term emotions that orientate us in the world. 

Reflexive Emotions

These are emotions that tend to be short lived such as anger and fear. Jasper says these are visible emotions in that you can see when someone is angry or happy.

Affective Commitments

These emotions relate to social identities.  Thus we may feel emotionally committed to our social group such as our local community, national identity, race, sex or social class. Thus as a women you may feel solidarity with other women when seeing them being disrespected. Or if you come from a working class community you may feel their pain when the local factory is closed, even you are not directly affected by the decision. We can feel aggrieved at decisions which are unfair to our social groups.

We feel these affective commitments and they determine who we respect and who we trust.

Moral Commitments

These are feelings about what is right or wrong. These tend to be fairly fixed at an early age and long term. These may take the form of pride, shame, and embarrassment


These are medium term emotions. For example, many liberals may feel depressed about the Brexit vote in the UK. Moods can affect our energy and the degree to which we take action or get involved in politics.

Politicians will want to inflate the moods of their supporters and motive them to take action.

Understanding Thinking Feeling

Drew Westen has previously said that the “political brain is an emotional brain. It is not a dispassionate calculating machine, objectively searching for the right facts, figures, and policies to make a reasoned decision.”  It seems to me that politicians can't simply address issues as rational decisions but as a complex process of thinking feeling.

By making clear these distinct emotional types Jasper provides a framework which we can use to explore political motivations. In the Brexit debate for example, these categories may help us understand some of the complex thinking feeling processes. People may have felt affective commitments to their nation or their social group, particularly if they felt their social group had suffered from low skilled, low wage immigration. People of say Indian origin may have felt unfairly treated at the priority given to European migrants over those from the rest of world. People may have felt short term anger at Juncker's statements immediately before the referendum that the British would be 'deserters' and warning that 'out is out' on the eve of the vote. Some voters may have been in an apathetic mood about the referendum making them unlikely to vote. Some people may have felt a moral commitment to national democracy and so on.

By understanding these different emotional elements maybe it would have been possible to have developed a different campaign strategy. One that fully addressed these emotions and not simply the rational reality described by John Major based primarily on economic forecasts.