Politics: Making us Mentally Sick?

Political Polarisation

The 2020 US presidential election is now (sort of) over. Most people I know are happy with the outcome. They dislike the personality and proclivities of Mr Trump. He is crude, bombastic, corrupt, dishonest, bigoted, they say. They are Australians, but they have recently become extraordinarily conversant in US politics. And they’ve never in their lives given so much attention to any politician.

In Australia, unlike in the US, politics remains rather boring. For the time being, it is perfectly acceptable to maintain a stance of political neutrality in our country. A position gently hostile to all politicians. To leave others ignorant and guessing (if they care that much) as to which direction your ideology bends.

But in the US it means more. Politics is about two groups in an existential death match. Democrats and Republicans don’t want each other in their workplaces and homes. They don’t understand one another. Democrats are from Venus, Republicans from Mars.

Could all this be making us sick?

Some recent research on the outcome of the 2016 US presidential election shows that our political team losing might be affecting our mental equilibrium. Hillary Clinton voters became decidedly more morose in the months following her 2016 loss, according to Brandon Yang and friends from Duke University (in North Carolina, one of the knife-edge states).

Yang and colleagues used data from the Behavioural Risk Factor Surveillance System, a household survey of 500,000 US adults. They compared self-reported days of poor mental health in Clinton dominated states versus Trump dominated states following the presidential election in November 2016.

They found that the average number of poor mental health days increased from 3.35 days per person in October to 3.85 days in December 2016, in Clinton voting states. This translates to 54.6 million more days of poor mental health than usual. Excellent news for tissue and chocolate and psychologist companies.

Even more interesting was the comparison between heavily Trump voting states and heavy Clinton states. In the 6 months following the election, Clinton states averaged 0.41 more days of poor mental health per person. The complete opposite true for Trumps states: 0.41 fewer days for them!

So, gloomy days for red states ahead?

When your team is winning you feel good. American football fans have a boost to their self-esteem that lasts at least two days after the game. Barcelona winning the UEFA cup may have led to more sex and a mini-baby boom amongst Catalonians. 

When your team is losing you feel bad. British researchers found that the negative emotions of your football team losing are stronger than the positive emotions of winning. Despite negative affect effect, people keep coming back to football.

As I opened with, most (almost all) people I have spoken to about the US Election are not unhappy about Trump getting fired. About 75 million Americans feel the same. But 70 million Americans voted for Trump. To the victor go the spoils. The Grand-Victors are Joe and Kamala, and the Grand Prize is the presidency. The petit-victors are the 75 million, and the petit-prizes are status, esteem, and its associated good mental health.

Indeed, there are gloomy days ahead for those invested in Team Trump.

Sick Politics

What makes people so invested in politics, even to the detriment of their mental health?

Entertainment must be one aspect, especially when regarding Trump. Our phones deliver us real-time blow-by-blow updates on the latest political tussles. Our team wins, and we enjoy dopamine and self-esteem. And our partners get lucky.

Identity is another crucial factor. Our guys are smart and good. The other guys are evil idiots. The other guys are dangerous. Better keep an eye on this competition to make sure that our guys make it.

Is it all that simple? Just like two sporting teams going head to head?

Beyond the sport-based analogues of entertainment and identity, I believe that change is a crucial factor. An under-appreciated aspect of mental health is control over change (known in research as locus of control). If we feel that we are in charge of change, or people similar to us are in charge of it, then we accept and roll with change. When we feel that people different to us are is charge of change, we feel stressed, helpless and hopeless.

So, we follow our teams. And our mental health suffering the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. Or maybe we can choose not to. To make effort to find the kernel of truth in ideas we find deplorable.

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