Way back in 1908, two American psychologists, Robert Yerkes and John Dodson, believed they could demonstrate empirically, that a relationship exists between arousal and performance. How they went about doing that is far less important than what they found; i.e. for simple tasks, performance increased as the strength of the arousing stimulus was artificially increased (1).

Over ensuing years, the two researchers’ basic finding was replicated so many times that we now refer to the Yerkes-Dodson Law. Just as importantly, subsequent scholars were able to demonstrate that intellectually demanding tasks were facilitated by low levels of arousal, but that performance peaked and then deteriorated as arousal was experimentally boosted (2).

Understanding the foregoing can shed a good deal of light on what is happening in our political arena during this campaign season. Therein, it hardly need be said that emotions are running high, most often fueled by the goading and prompting of at least some of the candidates, and that includes their use of patently vulgar and inflammatory language. What are the impacts of these various affective stimuli on voters’ ability to sort through office-seekers’ policy proposals, evaluate their suitability for office and experience at governance?

We do not have an empirical answer to the foregoing question. But, if we apply the Yerkes-Dodson Law and its subsequent refinements, we can hazard an educated guess. Specifically, if the evaluation of candidates is, at least in part, an intellectual task, then high levels of emotional arousal make that process more difficult. In turn, voters might decide to take a simpler path and focus on less relevant but superficially more appealing aspects of candidates’ presentations.

Nowhere does this dynamic play itself out more obviously than in the relationship between Primadonald Trump and his supporters. One would be hard put to find another candidate who has been more inflammatory, more goading and insulting than the NY real estate magnet. That his adherents love it seems beyond question. Does it matter to them that their man has never run for nor held public office, that he has zero experience at governance, that he makes wildly inaccurate, misleading statements, offers no concrete policy proposals, and  makes promises that he as president would be constitutionally forbidden to carry out (3,4)?   There are no indications that any of this matters to these people one whit. Such being evident, it is perfectly plausible to posit that their collective critical thinking abilities have been shoved to the back burner even as their emotions are moved up front and kept at boiling temperature.

Now, in fairness, you could say that all of the candidates seek to arouse their supporters. But, remember that it’s the level of arousal that is key. Too much of it is what has the potential to interfere with voters’ mental process of assessing the office-seeker. Among the current crop of six Republican candidates, no one has been better at being more “even keel” than Ohio Governor, John Kasich.

Over on the Democrats’ side, it appears that subjectively, HRC plays less on emotion than her opponent, Senator Bernie Sanders. It’s the former Secretary of State who speaks often of incremental change and vows not to make promises that she “cannot keep”. In contrast, it’s the Vermont senator who rails in favor of a “political revolution”and wants to implement a single payer healthcare system paid for with large tax increases on the upper and middle classes. It does not faze his supporters (especially among young voters), that said policies will never make it past a Republican-controlled House, a situation that will not be changed by the coming November election.

Taken all together, what we appear to be witnessing are serious lapses in judgment wherein a candidate’s ability to provoke voters’ strongest negative emotion(s) is mistaken for true leadership. It is quite a contrast to the calm, sober approaches of President “no-drama” Obama and SC Governor Nikki Haley (5).

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  1. Yerkes, R. and Dodson, J. (1908) The relationship of strength of stimulus to rapidity of habit formation. J. Comparative Neurology and Psychology; 18, 459 – 482.
  2. In a similar vein, professional athletes know that their physical performance will be closer to optimum if they have an emotional “edge”. But they also know that they can be “over-amped”.
  3. Primadonald has bragged that he will build a wall along the US-Mexican border and make the latter pay for it. The fact is, tax and tariff policies are set, constitutionally, by the Congress.
  4. Primadonald has boasted that he could “shoot someone on 5th Avenue and not lose a vote”.
  5. Think back to the president’s calming reassurance to the nation in face of the ebola epidemic, and to Governor Haley’s “turn down the volume” admonition to her Republican colleagues.
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