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How Emotions Motivate Followers

​SPEECHES HAVE been a major part of the political process throughout history. Masterpieces like Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech have been seen by millions of people as inspirational calls to action. Not all calls to action by political leaders are as lofty. Dictators and terrorists also use speeches to motivate followers.

Researchers are trying to figure out how leaders—with good intentions and bad—get followers to respond. The researchers involved in the effort are David Matsumoto of San Francisco State University and Humintell in San Francisco, which provides training and research on emotion detection; Mark G. Frank of the University at Buffalo, the State University of New York; and Hyisung C. Hwang of Humintell. They examined the extent to which political speeches incite violent and nonviolent acts. Their findings were published in the journal Behavioral Sciences of Terrorism and Political Aggression.

As the paper explains, the researchers looked at transcripts of speeches where world leaders and leaders of ideologically motivated groups discussed rival groups. The researchers examined speeches that occurred three, six, and 12 months prior to specific acts of rival-against-rival aggression that did not appear to be acts of retaliation for prior incidents; they also looked at speeches in those intervals prior to nonviolent acts of resistance. Among the violent events examined: the Bolshevik October Revolution in Russia in 1917, Kristallnacht (Night of Broken Glass) in Germany in 1938, the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939, and the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Among the acts of nonviolent resistance were: Mahatma Gandhi authoring the Civil Disobedience Congress resolution in 1932, and pro-Tibet supporters protesting the Olympics opening day in China in 2008. There were far fewer of the acts of nonviolent resistance than aggression.

The researchers discovered a distinct pattern in terms of the types of emotional triggers speakers used that appeared to correlate with a specific reaction. “Certain types of emotions are more toxic than other emotions. In particular… think in terms of a gunpowder metaphor. You put the three things together, and they get explosive,” Frank says. In this case, that explosive combination of emotions was anger, contempt, and disgust. Those three emotions were seen to be significantly increased in the speeches three months before an attack.

It’s very clear that there is a strong link between anger and aggression, says Matsumoto. But he adds that it’s the addition of contempt and disgust that really seems to be related to the violence.

He notes that disgust is an emotion about contamination and that, when other people or groups are associated with disgust, it becomes easier for one to think about elimination of those persons or groups because we typically eliminate contaminated objects anyway. “So we feel that it’s the combination or the addition of contempt and disgust along with the anger that really makes the deadly combination,” Matsumoto says. He adds that though the group studied emotions, there are obviously other important factors that determine whether a group will commit an act of aggression, such as the means, motive, and opportunity to make it happen.

The researchers were looking for words that connoted disgust, for example, but they were also looking for metaphors and other imagery that might convey the emotions. “In some cultures, dog connotes loyalty. In other cultures, it connotes disgust. So you have to have a lot of these kinds of things as well,” Frank says. The researchers used computer programs and human analysis to identify the emotions.

There was a lack of these three emotions in the speeches that preceded nonviolent acts of resistance. That doesn’t mean there wasn’t still anger or a grievance expressed, but the speaker did not convey contempt and disgust. Frank adds that it’s harder to commit violence on people “who you can see as people like yourself. This has always been the case whether you’re dealing with bomber pilots or with anyone else. The more you can psychologically remove people from others, the easier it is to pull the trigger.”

The researchers will continue in this vein; recently they’ve begun taking a look at speeches where there is video available, so that they can use indicators other than words and language to gauge emotions and the emotional reactions that the speaker is trying to elicit from the audience. They’d also like to conduct an experiment to prove a causal link between the emotions and certain actions, rather than just a correlation.

But they think their current work can be helpful. “There are nation-states that are very interested in that, as an early warning system to try to find the ways in which we can assess and monitor how other groups may be ramping up or not towards violence or aggression,” says Matsumoto. He adds that the work can be useful for people who are in harm’s way, such as law enforcement officers or individual soldiers. He adds that “developing systems that monitor these kinds of emotional/motivational words, language, and expression in others can help us understand the consequences of our own actions on the thoughts of others.”