18 October 2019

Is Politics Stressing You?

Welcome back. I’m old. I’ve lasted through quite a few U.S. presidents. Whether I agreed or disagreed with the man, his actions and policies, I’ve always respected the office. That’s changed over the past few years. I even get angry on occasion.

Judging by a recent study of the social, psychological, emotional and physical “costs” of Americans’ political involvement, I’m not alone.

The Women’s March, a protest held the day after President Trump’s inauguration, drew an estimated 3 million to over 5 million participants across the U.S. and over 7 million worldwide (photo from www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/if-women-s-march-was-beginning-resistance-what-s-next-n711031).
Surveying the Costs of Political Involvement
Political scientists from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and the University of California, Merced, broke new ground in addressing the non-economic costs of engaging in politics.

To assess the degree to which people perceive politics as the source of particular problems, the researchers developed a survey list of 32 items on the impact of politics in four categories: physical health, emotional health, regretted behavior and social/lifestyle costs.

As a starting point, their list drew upon the diagnostic instruments used by Alcoholics Anonymous and Gamblers Anonymous. For example, those surveys ask, “Does your drinking/gambling ever cause you to have difficulty sleeping?” The researchers’ included an item: I have lost sleep because of politics, with possible responses ranging from strongly agree to strongly disagree.

In addition to the 32 items on political impact, the survey also sought each respondent’s traits and characteristics, including socio-demographics, personality and political attitudes, knowledge, interest and activity.

The researchers enlisted YouGov to conduct the survey, which sampled 800 U.S. adults in March 2017, two months after Donald Trump was inaugurated. The study sample was specifically matched to a 2010 U.S. Census Bureau American Community Survey sampling frame on gender, age, race, education, party identification and political interest.

Key Impacts of Politics
Bowing to space and your likely interest, I’ll forego discussion of the data analyses and only highlight the survey’s key or interesting findings. Toward that end, the ten items that the highest percentage of respondents agreed or agreed strongly with are presented in the table.

The ten survey items with the highest percentage of respondents agreeing or agreeing strongly (from journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0221870).  
As shown in the table, 38% of the respondents said they were stressed by politics, 26% became depressed when their candidate lost, and politics caused 21% to be fatigued. Not shown is that 18% lost sleep, the physical health of 12% was adversely affected, and 4% took it to the extreme--they had suicidal thoughts.

Media outlets that promote views contrary to their own drove 32% of the respondents crazy. Going further, politics led 29% to lose their temper, 26% to hate some people, 23% to think seriously about moving and 15% to wish bad things on people with whom they disagreed.

Political differences caused problems in the immediate or extended family of over 15% of respondents, and 20% reported valued friendships damaged.

Who Felt the Impact?
The respondents most likely to believe politics was adversely affecting them at the time of the survey--again, two months after Mr. Trump’s inauguration--were younger, unemployed, more disagreeable and less emotionally stable. They tended to strongly disapprove of President Trump, be politically liberal and see their political opposites as uninformed, closed-minded and untruthful. They also tended to discuss politics frequently and be involved in political activities.

Wrap Up
The researchers emphasize how the timing of the study shaped the results. For comparison, they would hope to repeat the survey with a different president, particularly one who is left leaning.

As an Independent, I would expect the results would change markedly with any more conventional president. Also, although most of President Trump’s actions and their effects were predictable during the campaign and certainly at two months into his presidency, the costs measured by the survey likely increased with his time in office.

We can only stay tuned, I guess. Thanks for stopping by. 

Study of political costs in PLOS ONE journal: journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0221870
Article on study on EurekAlert! website: www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2019-09/uon-soa092019.php

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