Narrow Media Diet, Constant Consumption Building Political Anxieties

Nov 3, 2016

Credit Nick Evans

Political tensions are at a fever pitch as an historically ugly presidential campaign draws to a close, and experts suggest constant political engagement could be building those anxieties.

A rancorous election has reached its final stage, but regardless of who is sworn in next January, the deep partisan divisions it has brought to light, won’t be bridged easily.  To many of their opponents, the nominees at the top of the Republican and Democratic ticket don’t just hold positions and beliefs at odds with their own—the candidates seem dangerous.  Dr. Brad Schmidt from the Anxiety and Behavioral Health Clinic at Florida State University says those hardening political attitudes could be tied to media sources that rely on fear.

“I guess in the old days they used to say sex sells,” Schmidt says, “but fear sells too.” 

“And if you think about the media, people have learned that if you get folks riled up, anxious, afraid they’re going to tune in.”

He explains the success outlets have found with this approach is at least partly biological, as it heightens sensations that trigger the brain’s fight or flight responses. 

FSU sociologist Deana Rohlinger says the way people consume information now works to multiply the effect.

“So if you think about this in terms of politics,” she says, “if you’re constantly engaging and you have this level of anxiety, you’re your own worst enemy in this regard, right?   You have to recognize that these are—that the media, that the technology that we’re using is designed to pull us in and we have to try to find ways to pull ourselves out.”

But while Rohlinger says people should be judicious of how they consume information, the stress of the election shouldn’t be an excuse to disengage politically.

“What research shows is that even if we don’t love our candidates, we’re more satisfied when we participate,” Rohlinger says, “So that in and of itself is a reason to go out on Tuesday and vote.”

Schmidt and Rohlinger spoke on WFSU’s public affairs show Perspectives.