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Thrillers Affect Your Political Outlook

Thrillers Affect Your Political Outlook

Watching thrillers unconsciously increases hostility towards immigrants.

Have you ever watched a really exciting thriller? A very scary movie? Were you sure to turn all the lights on in the house afterwards? Did you look behind corners before turning them? Don’t lie! Movies can induce very strong emotions.

But could strong emotions affect more than just our mood? Could an emotional reaction from a movie even influence our political opinions? It might sound farfetched, but scientists have proven it can.


After conducting an experiment at Harvard University, political psychologists Renshon and colleagues discovered that anxious feelings increase hostility towards immigrants. 138 adult males participated in the experiment, in which one third were subjected to soothing shapes, colors and sounds, one third to neutral, abstract shapes and the last unfortunate third to a Sylvester Stallone movie. Yes, you read that right; apparently Stallone’s thriller Cliffhanger has been scientifically proven to freak people out and is therefore used frequently in experiments to induce anxiety.

The use of this movie is especially important because anxiety related to Cliffhanger is incidental to political feelings. This means that we are dealing with a ‘pure’ emotion that hasn’t been induced by political issues that are normally associated with anxious emotions, such as economic crises or high crime rates. Put simply, anxiety from watching a thriller seems unrelated to political anxiety. That way, Renshon and colleagues were able to uncover the influence everyday emotions have on political opinions, rather than focusing on emotions that were already politically loaded.

So did exposure to Stallone’s thriller increase hostility towards immigrants? It did indeed. Renshon and colleagues found a significant increase in negative feelings towards immigrants amongst the Stallone viewers compared to the more fortunate participants who were subject to abstract shapes and soothing music. Although shocking, that’s not even the whole story.


Levels of anxiety were measured by determining skin-conductance reactivity; by monitoring sweat with skin sensors, scientists were able to determine exactly how angst stricken participants felt. This means that anxiety was measured directly, rather than derived from participants’ responses regarding their own anxiety levels. The latter is known to complicate results as participants are unlikely to accurately indicate their own levels of anxiety.

Hostility towards immigrants however, was measured both directly and indirectly. This is where it really gets interesting. When asked directly how participants felt about high levels of immigration in their country, anxiety didn’t seem to increase participants’ hostility. When asked indirect questions however, such as whether immigrants should only be allowed to fill jobs Americans are unwilling to do, increased anxiety proved to be directly linked to increased hostility. This means that although we might not think anxiety changes our viewpoint, it unconsciously does.

What can we learn from this? Other than that Stallone makes one sweaty and hostile, we have discovered that political opinions are less rational than one might think. Political viewpoints are not only formed by the usual suspects such as your education and the media, or emotions brought on by politicians’ speeches or political crises. Politically unrelated emotions we experience through movies and other daily events have a significant impact on our political outlook. Whether we realize it or not. My tip: dust off the old whale-noise-cd before you cast your next vote.

Renshon, J., Lee, J., & Tingley, D. (2014). Physiological Arousal and Political Beliefs Political Psychology DOI: 10.1111/pops.12173

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