Getting Emotional and Acting Rationally: The Relationship between Emotion, Identity, and Collective Action

By Eric Groenendyk

In the first half of the 20th Century, pluralism and related group theories were a major force—if not a dominant force—in political science.  Politics was viewed as a clash between pressure groups that would arise naturally in pursuit of shared interests.  However, everything changed after Mancur Olson (1965) pointed out the inherent flaw in this logic.  From a purely rational standpoint, individuals may share the desire to attain a public good—be it clean air, food safety regulation, or even democracy itself—yet, because public goods are non-divisible, each individual has an incentive to free-ride.  According to Olson, this was why, as Schattschneider (1960) had already pointed out, large public interests seemed to lose out to narrower “special” interests.

Of course, while the disincentive to engage in collective action certainly poses a challenge for large groups, humans have shown the capacity to overcome this challenge time and time again.  If human reasoning was exclusively “rational,” our species may well have gone extinct long ago, and we almost certainly would not have been able to build a thriving civilization.  Still, Olson’s logic holds up quite well to empirical scrutiny.  Large groups do face an inherently greater challenge in overcoming collective action problems.  So how can we be so adept at overcoming collective action problems, yet simultaneously so challenged by them?

The answer is that “rational” cognitive process, such as those described by Olson, work in concert with emotions to shape behavior in ways that have proven to increase humans’ fitness for survival.  To put it more tersely, contrary to conventional wisdom, emotions often prevent reason from running amok.  Because cognitive processing capacity is limited, we could never hope to carefully process all the stimuli we encounter.  Thus, emotions help to direct our attention toward those stimuli that are most pertinent and guide cognitive processing accordingly.

Fear, in particular, has been shown to play a critical role in directing the allocation of cognitive resources (Brader 2006; Marcus, Neuman, and MacKuen 2000).  At the risk of oversimplification, individuals seem to be at their most “rational” when they feel anxious. More specifically, fear focuses attention and stimulates effortful processing in response to threatening stimuli.  As a result, a fearful soldier may decide that it is in his best interest to break the line and retreat from battle even though he knows that it will undermine the collective efforts of the unit.  A protestor who is anxious about getting arrested may flee from police even though she knows it will undermine the cause.  And a citizen who is nervous about the handling of the economy may choose to work longer hours and save up money rather than researching the economic plans of presidential candidates.  In short, by motivating individuals to think through their behavioral strategy, fear is unlikely to facilitate collective efforts.  In fact, it may even increase the likelihood of free riding.

On the other hand, while fear promotes careful consideration of one’s behavioral strategy, anger is associated with risk-taking behavior (Lerner and Keltner 2001).  Thus, we often see angry individuals acting before they think and engaging in behaviors that seem dangerous and irrational.  But as I have already suggested, “rationality” is often in the eye of the beholder.  Behaviors deemed irrational from the perspective of an individual operating at a given moment in time, may be quite adaptive from an evolutionary perspective.  Each individual soldier may seem irrational for risking his life to hold the line, each protestor may seem irrational for risking incarceration to promote a cause, and each citizen may seem irrational for expending time to support a candidate, but their efforts are necessary for the group to accomplish its goal.  And if the group can accomplish its goal, they will all be better off.  If anger helps groups to accomplish their collective goals, then it can provide a major adaptive advantage.  The key then, is to consider how groups of individuals come to experience shared anger rather than fear.

Intergroup emotions theory provides a useful framework for understanding precisely this question (see for example Mackie, Devos, and Smith 2000; van Zomeren, Spears, and Leach 2008).  According to the theory, the same stimulus can evoke distinct emotions when considered at the group level versus individual level.  For example, Antoine Banks and I recently examined the effect of thinking about political issues from the perspective of an individual, versus a political party (Groenendyk and Banks, Forthcoming).  We find that people often feel fearful when thinking about political problems from an individual perspective, because there is little they can do as individuals to protect themselves.  However, when thinking about politics from the standpoint of their preferred party, the same threats appear much more controllable.  Thus, individuals feel angrier (and not any more fearful) when considering political threats from the group level, and they show a greater likelihood of engaging in a variety of participatory acts.

Of course, it is important to remember that collective action is not always about responding to threats.  A group may wish to mobilize in response to an opportunity.  And the feeling of group association can be a positive experience.  Thus, positive emotions are also important to consider.  Fredrickson’s (2001) Broaden-and-Build Theory argues that positive emotions play a vital role in development by encouraging individuals to explore, contemplate ideas, and think creatively.  Such processes contrast with the narrower, more goal-driven function of negative emotions.  Our capacity to experience fear and anger helps us to overcome specific threats, whereas our capacity to experience positive emotions facilitates exploration, learning, and broader perspective-taking.  Thus, individuals are motivated differently when engaging stimuli that evoke positive emotions.  Rather than being driven to quell a particular threat, positive emotions motivate individuals to pursue things that interest them.  As a result, we find that while fear leads to thought but not much action, and anger leads to action but not much thought, the enthusiasm associated with strong party identification promotes both thought and political participation (Groenendyk and Banks, Forthcoming).

While the study of emotions provides an exciting opportunity for understanding how individuals are able to overcome collective action problems, it also poses new questions and challenges.  First among these is to develop a better understanding of the conditions under which emotions lead to pro-democratic versus anti-democratic behavior.  While the ability to overcome collective action problems is essential to healthy democracy, political tolerance is also vital.  Therefore, while certain emotions may help to facilitate collective action, this may not always be good for democracy.  This, of course, only makes emotional processes more vital to understand.



Ted Brader. (2006). Campaigning for hearts and minds: How emotional appeals in political ads work. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Fredrickson, Barbara L. (2001). “The role of positive emotions in positive psychology: The broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions.” American Psychologist 56(3): 218-26.

Groenendyk, Eric W. and Antoine Banks. (Forthcoming). “Emotional rescue: How affect helps partisans overcome collective action problems.” Political Psychology.

Mackie, Diane M., Thierry Devos, and Eliot R. Smith. (2000). “Intergroup emotions: Explaining offensive action tendencies in an intergroup context.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 79 (4):602-16.

Marcus, George, W. Russell Neuman, and Michael MacKuen. (2000). Affective intelligence and political judgment. Chicago: Chicago University Press.

Olson, Mancur. (1965). The logic of collective action: Public goods and the theory of groups. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Lerner, Jennifer S. and Dacher Keltner. (2001). “Fear, anger, risk.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 81(1): 146-59.

van Zomeren, Martijn, Russell Spears, and Colin Wayne Leach. (2008). “Exploring psychological mechanisms of collective action: Does relevance of group identity influence how people cope with collective disadvantage?” British Journal of Social Psychology 47 (2): 353-372.

1 Comment

Filed under Emotion in Motion, Essay Dialogues

One response to “Getting Emotional and Acting Rationally: The Relationship between Emotion, Identity, and Collective Action

  1. Pingback: E(moción) y movimientos sociales contemporáneos | Comunicación y Cultura Popular

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