Reasonable emotions and emotional reasoning: The marriage referendum

Luke Field

Posted: 15 May, 2017

Luke Field is a Government of Ireland Postgraduate Scholar based at the School of Politics and International Relations (SPIRe) at University College Dublin. His research is entitled ‘Changing Marriage? Changing Minds? A discourse analysis of the 2015 Referendum on Marriage Equality’ and he joins us today to mark our #LoveIrishResearch theme for the month of May ‘Pride in our Research’.

One of the fundamental tasks for anyone involved in politics is persuasion. After all, the very phenomenon of political activity rests on disagreement, and on the existence of competing interests and narratives. Whether you are seeking to make a change or to prevent one, your goal is to convince the person(s) to support your view.

My research examines one element of this process of persuasion: the role played by emotion. I’m interested in questions like:

  • How important is emotion in the art of persuasion?
  • In what way do the different emotions impact differently on persuasion?
  • Can emotion alone be sufficient to persuade, or is something else needed too?

The prominence of emotion in these questions, and my own perspective as a political scientist, make my research an interdisciplinary undertaking. It can be broadly understood as a political psychology project, drawing in research from emotive psychology (sometimes called ‘affective psychology’), cognitive psychology, behavioural psychology, and decision science, in order to answer questions about political phenomena. In other words, it can get pretty complex; there are a lot of plates to be kept spinning.

(Alternatively, think of it as playing in a covers band that hops between genres a lot, and you also have to do requests.)

The political phenomenon of interest in this research is a referendum. There are a few reasons why a referendum is attractive for this type of research, not least the relative simplicity (from a researcher’s perspective) of a binary choice: Yes/No, For/Against, A/B. In a referendum context, the decision-makers are the voters, so it’s their emotions that are of interest; that means we can add three sub-disciplines of political science to our interdisciplinary party: referendum studies, electoral politics, and voter behaviour.

It might surprise some that there is considerable scarcity of data and research into the area of emotion on voter decision-making. What we do have at our disposal, however, is existing research into the effects of emotion on decision-making more broadly.

The evidence to date points towards some tentative answers to the questions above: emotion is important in decision-making, particularly as a ‘cognitive shortcut’ or a means of simplifying an otherwise complex decision; different emotions do have different effects, with fear tending to make one more change-averse versus anger making one more likely to embrace change; and while emotion can be a very powerful persuasive tool, it is not always sufficient – it is more effective for advancing certain types of argument than others.

With this in mind, then, we can start to assume that emotion is a powerful tool for anyone seeking to engage in persuasion. In a referendum context, we take these persuaders as the campaign actors – i.e., anyone involved in popularising or garnering support for one side or another. (At this point, we welcome yet another face at the interdisciplinary party, the campaign effects literature.) The rhetorical choices of these campaign actors, then, become of interest – they will logically choose to use the strategies that offer the greatest persuasive power, so examining these strategies can tell us something about the power of emotion.

With this prior research in mind, I decided a case study was needed to put these tentative conclusions to the test.

The referendum I’m focusing on is the Irish referendum on marriage equality, celebrating its second anniversary today. That referendum meets a number of criteria for an attractive case study:

  • It has close proximity in both time and space, making data-gathering relatively easy;
  • The topic of the referendum was highly emotive, suggesting that it’s particularly suitable for this type of research;
  • Early research on this case from the campaign effects perspective suggests that it is a referendum where the campaigns actually influenced the outcome – far from a safe assumption in all instances;
  • It’s a referendum that people care strongly about, which is a good enough reason in itself to warrant research.

I hope that my research will contribute to our understanding of how emotion influences our thinking and decision-making. It may dispel the belief held in some quarters that emotion is somehow a negative influence on decision-making, if it becomes apparent that emotion actually compliments more logical forms of reasoning. At the very least, I hope it contributes to the documentation of a remarkable event in Irish history: the referendum by which we became the first country in the world to approve marriage equality by popular vote.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in our guest blogs are the author’s own, and do not reflect the opinions of the Irish Research Council or any employee thereof.

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