Are we tempted by the smile of the enemy? Examining voters’ response to politicians’ emotional displays


What happens when politicians show emotions? According to emotional contagion theory, one might expect that people mimic politicians’ nonverbal expressions, leading to affect transfer from politician to voter. However, it is more likely that emotional mimicry is conditional upon people’s priors, raising the following questions: do we only mimic the politicians we support? Or can we be tempted by the enemy’s smile? In this study, we theorize and test (1) the extent to which politicians' emotional displays transfer to voters, (2) how party attachment moderates emotional contagion, (3) and which emotions are most contagious. In a pre-registered experiment (N=109), the participants were presented with manipulated facial expressions of politicians. We measure both cognitive-emotional (self-reports) and physiological emotional responses (facial electromyography). The study provides insights in how voters are emotionally affected by politicians’ emotional displays, and contributes to the polarization literature by examining whether and when voters can be emphatic to their opponents emotions.