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AAAS Member Kevin Smith Studies the Fractures of Our Political Divide

Kevin Smith
Kevin Smith, Ph.D. Image by Craig Chandler/University Communication, University of Nebraska–Lincoln.

Voting may not be for the faint of heart, and not only because of COVID-19, the global pandemic that transformed the way people participated in the 2020 presidential election. University of Nebraska researcher and AAAS Member Kevin Smith has shown that engaging with politics may be inherently stressful and can even take a toll on our health.

With frequent Nebraska collaborator John Hibbing and others, Smith investigates the interplay between biology and an individual’s stance on government and politics. In a study published last year, Smith and collaborators discovered that a sizable number of Americans reported that engaging in politics has damaged their physical health, taken a mental health toll and cost them relationships.

It all started after Smith’s team set out to investigate reports in the press and elsewhere about the number of people who were upset by the 2016 election.

“We got to thinking, how far does that go? Can political engagement affect your health? If so, how widespread is it?” Smith recalls.

The team, based in Nebraska’s Center for Brain, Biology and Behavior, surveyed 800 people who represented a cross-section of Americans between March 15 and 20, 2017— four months after the presidential election, and about two months after President Donald Trump's inauguration. They created a survey of 32 items. Hibbing gets “a good chunk of the credit” for setting up the survey, Smith says.

Thirty-eight percent of respondents in the study said politics caused them stress. A favored candidate's loss caused self-reported depression for 26%; and one in five people surveyed said political differences damaged a valued relationship.

“I’ve spent my entire adult life studying politics, and I found it astonishing, the number of people who said they perceived politics as exacting such a long series of negative consequences on their psychological, emotional, social and physical health,” Smith says.


Liberals have been more stressed

Survey results revealed people who reported being negatively affected by political engagement tended to be younger, unemployed (a designation that included students and retired people), male or liberal voters who held strong views and had relatively low opinions of those across the aisle.

Of course, those distressed voters' candidate might have been Hillary Clinton, who had just lost a very close election, and Trump does “push a lot of people's buttons,” Smith noted. His group’s latest survey, conducted in late October of 2020, before Joe Biden's victory, yielded comparable results.

The team is gathering more data now that a Democrat will be in the White House. That new study, which will include data from both before and after the 2020 election, won’t be out for another year or two, he says. The findings will help researchers like Smith compare how liberals and conservatives are handling changes post-election.

Smith's group has also demonstrated that people's salivary cortisol levels rise when they vote, which indicates stress, and that people who have a low tolerance for stress, as reflected in their cortisol levels, are less likely to vote.

Their work has also debunked some “folk wisdom” about voting and partisanship — for example, the idea that people become more conservative as they age. A study they published earlier this year found that political views are remarkably stable over people's lives.


Politics tap into our fundamental social nature

 What all this suggests, Smith says, is that politics tap into something fundamental in our makeup, “one of the most ancient parts of our psychology, our innate groupish nature.” Those strong feelings have been intensified in recent years by partisan media and social media, he says.

Biology isn't destiny when it comes to politics, though, Smith says. “We're talking about tendencies.”

Smith has long been interested in how people vote and how that influences behavior. A former newspaper reporter, he got hooked on political science in graduate school and soon became convinced that “people don't behave the way you think they're going to behave,” which drew him to research.

Smith would be gratified if his work improves scientists’ understanding of “why people think and do what they do politically,” and helps people in general “better deal with our hyper-polarized political climate.”

He urges people to guard their health and well-being against the stressors of political discussions during the holiday season — even via Zoom.

“We all do have agency,” he says. “It would be good if we could meet in the middle with comity and civility.”



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