In a conflict as politicized as wolf restoration in the West, assumptions about the opposition abound and accusations that “the other side is just being emotional” are common. Because these so-called “emotional arguments” are considered by many to be irrational, they are framed is being outside the bounds of wildlife policy-making (which, one would hope, is rational and science-based). The problem is that emotions play a role in all types of decision-making, and usually an important role. One version of emotion, in particular “affect”, actually can act as a decision-making heuristic, or short-cut.
To psychologists, “affect” is the immediate, valenced evaluation of an object. For non-psychologists, you might think of affect as your gut reaction to something (be it a wolf, a person, or a policy). Remarkably, humans are capable of making such evaluations with very little information–and without fully engaging the cognitive or analytical parts of our brains. This good-bad evaluation (affect) influences information processing and decision-making in a variety of contexts, from evaluating the attractiveness of things ranging from bets to dictionaries to cups of ice cream, to influencing our propensity to donate to wildlife organizations.
Here, we were particularly interested in understanding the role of affect in the choice to act politically for or against wolf recovery. We posted a link to an online survey on a well-known wildlife blog (besides this one!) for one week, and received 678 completed responses. We used structural equation modeling to investigate the relationships between affect and individual’s intentions to act politically in either support or opposition of wolf recovery (and a number of other factors); in addition, we assessed the indirect relationship of affect mediated by knowledge and perceived positive and negative outcomes of wolf recovery (i.e., the cognitive or “rational” route to decisions). The model (see below) shows the constructs (e.g., affect, knowledge, etc.) that were assessed, along with the strength of the relationships between these constructs.
While this model says a lot in a small amount of space, the most interesting part (from our perspective) is the role that affect plays in people’s intentions to to take political action in opposition to wolf recovery. The numbers next to the arrows are telling us about the relationship between the variables that are linked, with numbers closer to 1 or -1 indicating a stronger relationship. So, the number beside the direct arrow from “Affect” to “Oppositional action”(β = -.35) is telling us that the more negative a person’s affective reaction to wolves, the more willing they are to take political action opposing wolf recovery. Likewise, the number beside the arrow from “Affect” to “Negative outcomes” (β= -.77) indicates that the more negative a person’s affect towards wolves, the more strongly they hold beliefs that wolves will have negative outcomes. So what? Seems intuitive, right? In general, what these data suggest is that people’s affective reaction to wolves are [gulp] driving their beliefs about both the positive and negative outcomes associated with the species; moreover the direct effect of affect (β = -.35) dwarfs the effect of people’s beliefs about negative outcomes associated with wolves. While the relationship between beliefs about positive outcomes associated with wolves and intentions is stronger, those beliefs are (again) driven by affective reactions.
Those politically supporting wolf recovery aren’t off the hook, however. The model below shows us that the direct relationship between affect and the intention to politically support wolf recovery is β = .16. While this is smaller than the model for oppositional political action, the indirect effects of affect are still substantial. The relationship between affect and beliefs about positive outcomes is strong (β = .86), and between positive outcomes and supportive political action is strong as well (β = .67). Again, the effect of affect is to predispose people to belief positive (or negative) outcomes about wolves.
Of course, we should keep in mind that though individuals may be feeling more positive or negative towards wolves, that does not change the actual likelihood of certain outcomes (one may feel more positive or negative about some outcome in a given situation, but it does not change the actual odds of the outcome). What affect tends to do is point us towards outcomes that agree with or confirm our affective reactions, which can then inform our related behaviors. What does this mean for wolf recovery and management? That all sides involved are influenced by their good or bad feelings about wolves. This data show that affect influences their knowledge, beliefs about outcomes, and ultimately, their political actions related to wolf recovery. Moreover, it shows that that it isn’t really possible to separate rational from emotional decision-making. Both sides beliefs about the outcomes of wolves are associated with their emotional reactions to wolves–which dictates (in part) the behaviors they endorse.
Of course, there are a few caveats associated with this study. First, our survey is absolutely NOT representative of the public at large. Of course, this was purposeful. We were interested in those individuals who were most likely to actual have an impact on policy–specifically, those who write their Congressperson, write letters to the editor of their local paper, or donate to organizations that litigate these issues. Second, we rely upon correlational data to determine causation. Although this isn’t generally recommended, the primacy of affect (over cognitive processes) is well-established in the psychological literature–meaning experimental studies have shown that affect precedes cognition.