The Place of Emotion in International Relations Scholarship

The shift to attention on emotion and politics takes us back to the early ‘80s – a time when the cognitive revolution was well ensconced in both political science and psychology.[1] When I began with my interest in emotion, the route I took – to derive theoretical and methodological (broadly defined) guidance from neuroscience research on emotion – was then rare. Since that time, the two – emotion as topic, neuroscience as approach – have grown from “what?”, to “cutting edge” to mainstream. Research has grown apace (Brader, Marcus and Miller, 2011) even going so far as to reach economists (Glimcher and Rustichini, 2004). It is worth remarking that in the field of political psychology, a natural home for research on the role of emotion, the earlier handbooks, one from the early 70s (Knutson, 1973) and the other from the mid 80s (Hermann, 1986) lacked a chapter on emotion and the Hermann volume did not have an entry in the index for either affect or emotion.[2]

For scholars interested in new(ish) opportunities, new variables, new results, it is not then a surprise to find that international relations scholars have embraced the new direction (Mercer, 2006). Scholars have examined the recent Arab uprisings usefully incorporating emotion (Pearlman, 2013). At this summer’s Annual Scientific Meeting of the International Society of Political Psychology, two panels focused on emotion and important elements of international relations: the first examined how emotion can account for the support for the use of violence, the second on emotions in reconciliation processes. However, often the attention to emotion is ad hoc, that is, relatively a-theoretical, or implicit (Hafner-Burton, Hughes and Victor, 2013).[3]

Any encouragement I might offer for further work is merely that. Moreover, the field in various ways makes a focus on emotion obvious. As noted above, interest in the dynamics of violence as well as of reconciliation invites a turn to emotions. Similarly, conditions of amity and hostility, xenophobia and cosmopolitanism, trust in leadership and institutions, factors that stabilize hierarchy and those that undermine it, among many others, all invite consideration of emotion. That, and as adding new factors offers the prospect of new findings, explains the continued growth of research examining emotion. But to improve the “hit rate” on research on emotion let me offer some reflections.

Researchers, begin with a theoretical focus. There have been, broadly, three theoretical traditions. Presented in chronological order: first, the psychoanalytic, most often through the examination of the psyche of political leaders (Erikson, 1958; Langer, 1972; Volkan and Itkowitz, 1984). The second is the cognitive discrete emotion perspective (Ortony and Turner, 1990; Roseman, 1984; Smith, Haynes, Lazarus and Pope, 1993). Here emotion is a dependent variable, largely accounted for by prior cognitive appraisals. The third is the turn to the neuroscientific approach (Marcus, 2013).[4] No matter the tradition a researcher adopts, there are tasks that await.

To advance some cautions, I shall use the familiar “feeling thermometer” item often used in emotion research to advance some cautions. Feeling thermometer measures typically rely on a 100 point metric. Subjects are asked to apply a temperature analogy – from how hot (liking) to cold (disliking) – while assigning a number to their feeling toward some target of interest, be that a political leader, a group or even a country, or to some policy (say “how would you say you feel about negotiating with [some antagonistic group or nation]?”). The result, a clear metric, has been around for over a half century. Here is how one contemporary advocate of the tool describes her use thereof: “The Feeling Thermometer is one of my favorite tools that we use at FOCUS. It helps kids and parents express how they feel. It also assists family members to understand that each person in the family may have different responses to the same event. The Feeling Thermometer provides a common language for families to identify and share feelings.”[5]

The thermometer offers the advantage of being a single item measure, hence enabling efficient data collection across a wide range of stimulus objects of interest. A scholar is interested in how people feel about going to war, negotiating with the enemy, responding to various national leaders whether ostensibly friendly or hostile, about trusting various international organizations, or NGO’s? No problem, just rely on a feeling thermometer for each. But too often scholars do not sufficiently seriously examine the underlying theoretical claims and presumptions on which all measurement approaches rest. So, let’s examine how well the feeling thermometer measures meet theoretical and methodological standards.

We use words to name things. However, science puts some restrictions on terms meant to serve science. Scientific terms identify properties that are singular rather than compound. That is, property A is more or less of that property. Of course, in native languages lots of terms have multiple and even conflicting elements. Such lay terms as “justice” contains complexities of meaning and context that feed numerous disputes over what is a just person, institution, society or world (and not just by philosophers). And, many terms in science are derived, often too casually, from lay terms. Hence, emotion became “affect” and thinking “cognition” more to give some semblance of scientific luster than being sufficiently theoretically and methodologically well-grounded.

Does the term “feeling thermometer” meet that standard? Perhaps, but if and only if, people have only a summary singular feeling that ranges from low (feeling very cold, meaning negative) to high (feeling very warm, meaning positive) towards whatever designated target they are asked to assess. Given the then dominant conception of emotion in academic psychology in the 50s, that presumption was plausible. Emotion was then understood as a sort of storage vault for summary evaluations, ‘affect tags’ as it were (Fiske and Taylor, 1991). Here then we have two essential foundational but nonetheless empirical claims. First, that emotion is a valence measure, a single value that ranges from very positive through neutral to very negative. This understanding of emotion then was linked to claims about how humans have a fundamental need to sort out approach strategies from avoidance strategies meant to advance survival (Tooby and Cosmides, 1990). Second, the particular emotion people experienced was thought to be determined by some appraisal mechanism which in turn enabled those appraisals to be retained in memory in reduced form, not as the appraisals that led to the emotion but just the emotion itself. So, for example, a negative event we experienced would generate an emotional reaction but that emotion would depend on an appraisal of whether we, or someone else, is the cause of that event and further, whether the negative event was in public view or hidden. Hence: whether we feel guilt, as opposed to shame, depends on whether we understood the act in question to be caused by us and whether we believe it to be private (unknown to others) or visible (hence our actions seen by others). A then popular approach that encapsulated much of this conception was depicted as “schema theory” (Conover and Feldman, 1984; Lau, 1986; Lodge and Hamill, 1986). In sum, emotion is a simple valence measure that “stores” prior often more complex “cognitive” appraisals (Clore and Ortony, 2008; Ortony, Clore and Collins, 1989).

For some decades these presumptions have been shown to be false. Two studies in particular, both dated in the early 80s, began the collapse of these foundations. First, as to the construct validity of feeling thermometers, studies that contained multiple measures of good (presumably approach) emotion terms and multiple bad (presumably avoid) emotion terms, (Abelson, Kinder, Peters and Fiske, 1982) found that rather than there being but one valence dimension there were two largely orthogonal dimensions (Almagor and Ben-Porath, 1989; Plutchik and Conte, 1997; Russell, 1980; Tellegen, Watson and Clark, 1999; Watson, Clark and Tellegen, 1984; Watson and Tellegen, 1985). Thus the presumption that affective responses to some target, familiar or novel, could be safely measured by a single valence was fundamentally challenged by numerous studies that found that multiple concurrent dimensions are minimally necessary to properly and adequately assess subject’s affective responses to target stimuli.[6] To put the matter more simply, people experience at least two concurrent emotions when they are attendant to any stimulus; we feel both good and bad affective reactions, not good or bad reactions.

In sum, feeling thermometers scales are confounded measures, confounded in two respects. First, people asked to use a feeling thermometer cannot report that they feel both some measure of positive and negative affective reactions to political (indeed all) target stimuli. And, second, more recent research has challenged the unity of feeling “negatively” because people report not holistically negative reactions. Even in that seemingly coherently singular domain, that of negative feeling, people experience an admixture of anxiety and aversion to stimuli that have some admixture of risk and uncertainty because our brains differentiate between risk and novelty and generate feelings of aversion to the first, risk, and feelings of anxiety to the second, uncertainty. Feeling thermometers blot out all those differences and demand that subjects offer some summary assessment that is a confound of these concurrent and multiple affective states. That people readily offer a response when asked how warm or cold they feel to some target does not make that response scientifically meaningful.

Another paper published about the same time (Zajonc, 1980) challenged the other foundational claim, that affective responses are a summary of and responsive to earlier conducted assessments. In that study Zajonc argued that people manifested their preferences, their feelings of liking or disliking, without the involvement of any expressive or implicit reasoning. Innumerable studies since have confirmed that affective responses very early in the chain of neural processing of both internal and external sensory datum. In brief, consciousness is the result of a slow process that culminates around 500 milliseconds after largely electrical signals arrive to the brain (Libet, Wright, Elwood W., Feinstein and Pearl, 1979; Libet, Gleason, Wright and Pearl, 1983; Libet, 1985).[7] Affective appraisals, on the other hand, are very fast neural processes. They arise no later than 40 – 60 milliseconds after the arrival of sensory information from outside (light, noise, and the like) and information from inside the body (i.e., somatosensory, that is signals from the body), to the brain, that is over 400 milliseconds before consciousness (Öhman, Flykt and Lundquist, 2000; LeDoux, 1992; LeDoux, 1995). Affective responses are appraisals that occur before and inform later neural processes including of course those that are displayed in consciousness (Marcus, 2003; Marcus, 2012).

This insight has lead to a shift, only just begun, away from a spatial conception of the relationship between affect and cognition (for example, the frequent assignment of the body as the site for the former and the brain as the site for the latter) to a temporal conception wherein fast, affective processes precede later, slower, and less deft “cognitive” processes (Marcus, 2002).[8]

This shift turns to the next major theoretical and methodological task: to identify the number and function responsibilities of the fast affective appraisals. At the moment most of the interest has centered on three appraisals: (1) appraisals of the success or failure of familiar routines in obtaining familiar rewards; (2) appraisals of the success or failure of familiar routines in securing valued interests against familiar punishments; and (3) appraisals of the novelty of the contemporary situation. The first is expressed as variation in enthusiasm, the second is expressed as variation in aversion, and the third is expressed as variation in anxiety.[9] Here I want to close with two points to accelerate progress in emotion research in international relations as well as in other domains of politics. First, further research in the neuroscience of emotion is likely to identify yet other affectively rooted appraisals (Panksepp, 1998; Panksepp and Biven, 2012). Hopefully, pointing that out will accelerate that augmentation. Second, and perhaps more importantly, these multiple concurrent preconscious affective appraisals are mutually engaged so that a research focus on any one must theoretically and methodologically specify the concurrent interplays as well as their disparate and coordinated “downstream” effects of further later affective responses, on modes of thought and of action. Examining any one affect response in isolation is risking the production of under- and mis-specified results. Hopefully these cautions will not discourage. I offer them to improve the benefit we can all obtain from research yet to come.


George E. Marcus is professor of Political Science at Williams College. He has been the executive director of the International Society of Political Psychology and is currently the society’s Councilor. Of his publications, his favorite is The Sentimental Citizen (2002, Penn State University Press). His most recent book is Political Psychology: Neuroscience, Genetics, and Politics (2013, Oxford University Press).



Abelson, Robert P., Donald R. Kinder, Mark D. Peters, and Susan T. Fiske. 1982. “Affective and Semantic Components in Political Personal Perception”. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 42:619-30.

Almagor, Moshe, and Yossef S. Ben-Porath. 1989. “The Two-factor Model of Self-reported Mood: a Cross-cultural Replication”. Journal of Personality Assessment 53:10-21.

Brader, Ted, George E. Marcus, and Krystin L. Miller. 2011. “Emotion and Public Opinion.” In Oxford Handbook of American Public Opinion and the Media, ed. Robert Y. Shapiro, and Lawrence R. Jacobs. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Clore, Gerald L., and Andrew Ortony. 2008. “Appraisal Theories: How Cognition Shapes Affect Into Emotion.” In Handbook of Emotion, ed. Michael Lewis, Jeannette Haviland-Jones, and Lisa Feldman Barrett. New York: Guilfold.

Conover, Pamela, and Stanley Feldman. 1984. “How People Organize the Political World: a Schematic Model”. American Journal of Political Science 28:95-126.

Conover, Pamela, and Stanley Feldman. 1986. “Emotional Reactions to the Economy: I’m Mad as Hell and I’m Not Going to Take it Any More”. American Journal of Political Science 30:30-78.

Cornelius, Randolf R. 1996. The Science of Emotion: Research and Tradition in the Psychology of Emotions. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Erikson, Erik H. 1958. Young Man Luther; a Study in Psychoanalysis and History. New York: Norton.

Fiske, Susan T., and Shelley E. Taylor. 1991. Social Cognition. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Glimcher, Paul W., and Aldo Rustichini. 2004. “Neuroeconomics: the Consilience of Brain and Decision”. Science 306:447-52.

Hafner-Burton, Emilie M., D. Alex Hughes, and David G. Victor. 2013. “The Cognitive Revolution and the Political Psychology of Elite Decision Making”. Perspectives on Politics 11:368-86.

Hermann, Margaret G. 1986. Political Psychology. San Francisco ; London: Jossey-Bass.

Huddy, Leonie, David Sears, and Jack S. Levy, eds. 2013. The Oxford Handbook of Political Psychology

Knutson, Jeanne Nickell. 1973. Handbook of Political Psychology. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Langer, Walter. 1972. The Mind of Adolf Hitler. New York: Basic Books.

Lau, Richard R. 1986. “Political Schemata, Candidate Evaluations, and Voting Behavior.” In Political Cognition, ed. Richard R. Lau, and David O. Sears. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

LeDoux, Joseph E. 1992. “Brain Mechanisms of Emotion and Emotional Learning”. Current Opinion in Neurobiology 2:191-7.

LeDoux, Joseph E. 1995. “Emotion: Clues From the Brain”. Annual Review of Psychology 46:209-35.

Libet, Benjamin. 1985. “Unconscious Cerebral Initiative and the Role of Conscious Will in Voluntary Action”. The Behavioral and Brain Sciences 8:529-66.

Libet, Benjamin, Curtis A. Gleason, Elwood W. Wright, and Dennis K. Pearl. 1983. “Time of Conscious Intention to Act in Relation to Onset of Cerebral Activity (readiness-potential)”. Brain 106:623-42.

Libet, Benjamin, Jr. Wright, Elwood W., Bertram Feinstein, and Dennis K. Pearl. 1979. “Subjective Referral of the Timing for a Conscious Sensory Experience”. Brain 102:1597-600.

Lodge, G. Milton, and Ruth Hamill. 1986. “A Partisan Schema for Political Information Processing”. American Political Science Review 80:505-20.

Marcus, George E. 2000. “Emotions in Politics.” In Annual Review of Political Science, ed. Nelson W. Polsby. Palo Alto, CA: Annual Reviews.

Marcus, George E. 2002. The Sentimental Citizen: Emotion in Democratic Politics. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press.

Marcus, George E. 2003. “The Psychology of Emotion and Politics.” In Oxford Handbook of Political Psychology, ed. David O. Sears, Leonie Huddy, and Robert Jervis. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Marcus, George E. 2012. Political Psychology: Neuroscience, Genetics and Politics. New York: Oxford University Press.

Marcus, George E. 2013. “Reason, Passion, and Democratic Politics: Old Conceptions – New Understandings – New Possibilities.” In Nomos Liii: Passions and Emotions, ed. James E. Fleming. New York: New York University Press.

Marcus, George E., Michael MacKuen, Jennifer Wolak, and Luke Keele. 2006. “The Measure and Mismeasure of Emotion.” In Feeling Politics: Emotion in Political Information Processing, ed. David Redlawsk. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Mercer, Jonathan. 2006. “Human Nature and the First Image: Emotion in International Politics”. Journal of International Relations and Development 9:288-303.

Öhman, Arne, Anders Flykt, and Daniel Lundquist. 2000. “Unconscious Emotion: Evolutionary Perspectives, Psychophysiological Data, and Neuropsychological Mechanisms.” In Cognitive Neuroscience of Emotion, ed. Richard D. Lane, and Lynn Nadel. New York: Oxford University Press.

Ortony, Andrew, Gerald L. Clore, and Allan Collins. 1989. The Cognitive Structure of Emotions. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Ortony, Andrew, and Terence J. Turner. 1990. “What’s So Basic About Basic Emotions?”. Psychological Review 97:315-31.

Panksepp, Jaak. 1998. Affective Neuroscience: the Foundations of Human and Animal Emotions. New York: Oxford University Press.

Panksepp, Jaak, and Lucy. Biven. 2012. The Archaeology of Mind : Neuroevolutionary Origins of Human Emotions. New York: W. W Norton.

Pearlman, Wendy. 2013. “Emotions and the Microfoundations of the Arab Uprisings”. Perspectives on Politics 11:387-409.

Plutchik, Robert, and Hope R. Conte. 1997. Circumplex Models of Personality and Emotions. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Roseman, Ira. 1984. “Cognitive Determinants of Emotions: a Structural Theory.” In Review of Personality and Social Psychology, ed. P. Shaver. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.

Russell, James A. 1980. “A Circumplex Model of Affect”. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 39:1161-78.

Russell, James, A., and James M. Carroll. 1999. “The Phoenix of Bipolarity: Reply to Watson and Tellegen (1999)”. Psychological Bulletin 125:611-7.

Sabucedo, José Manuel, Maria Rodríguez, M. Durán, and Monica Alzate. 2011. “Emotional Responses and Attitudes to the Peace Talks With E.t.a.”. Revista Latinoamericana de Psicología 43:289-96.

Sears, David O., Leonie Huddy, and Robert Jervis. 2003. Oxford Handbook of Political Psychology. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Smith, Craig A., Kelly N. Haynes, Richard S. Lazarus, and Lois K. Pope. 1993. “In Search of the “hot” Cognitions: Attributions, Appraisals, and Their Relation to Emotion”. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 65:916-29.

Sullivan, Dennis, and Roger Masters. 1988. “Happy Warriors: Leaders’ Facial Displays, Viewers Emotions, and Political Support”. American Journal of Political Science 32:345-68.

Tellegen, Auke, David Watson, and Lee Anna Clark. 1999. “On the Dimensional and Hierarchical Structure of Affect”. Psychological Science 10:297-303.

Tooby, John, and Leda Cosmides. 1990. “The Past Explains the Present: Emotional Adaptations and the Structure of Ancestral Environments”. Ethology and Sociobiology 11:375-424.

Volkan, Vamik D., and Norman Itkowitz. 1984. The Immortal Ataturk: a Psychobiography. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Watson, David, Lee Anna Clark, and Auke Tellegen. 1984. “Cross-cultural Convergence in the Structure of Mood: a Japanese Replication and a Comparison With U. S. Findings”. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 47:127-44.

Watson, David, and Auke Tellegen. 1985. “Toward a Consensual Structure of Mood”. Psychological Bulletin 98:219-35.

Zajonc, Robert B. 1980. “Feeling and Thinking: Preferences Need No Inferences”. American Psychologist 35:151-75.

[1] Soon thereafter some important work was done by, among others, Conover and Feldman (1986) as well as  Sullivan and Masters (1988).

[2] A lapse since rectified by most recent field overviews (Sears, Huddy and Jervis, 2003; Huddy, Sears and Levy, 2013).

[3] Though see Sabucedo, Rodríguez, Durán and Alzate (2011) as a counter example of researchbased on a relatively full informed theoretical foundation.

[4] For a fuller history see Marcus (2000) or Cornelius (1996).

[6] For the 80s the provisional conclusion was that two dimensions, one “positive”, the other “negative”, were minimally necessary. An alternative conception, one achieved by rotating the dimensions 45 degrees, argued for “valence” and “arousal”, was advanced largely by Prof. James Russell (Russell et al., 1980; Russell, A. and Carroll, 1999). In the 90s and since, with the emergence of aversion (or, anger), the “negative” domain, once thought to be coherent, has split into two contrary domains, anxiety marking the unexpected and novel as distinct from aversion which marks the familiar and punishing (Marcus, MacKuen, Wolak and Keele, 2006). This then leaves us with a minimal set of three concurrent affective responses as being the most common experience subjects report, if enabled by the measures available, to political stimuli.

[7] All senses, but for the olfactory, convert input (e.g., light reaching the retina cells, sound waves moving the little bones in our ears) to electricity, as are somato-sensory inputs. Our bodies have nerves the convert tension in the tendons and muscles as a function of movement and resistance to electricity that converge to the spine and hence to brain so that the brain knows what’s happening “out there” in the body. Hormones also serve  this communication function as well.

[8] Psychoanalytic accounts, for example, hold to a spatial arrangement of its division of neural domains, with the superego, ego, and id being arrayed above and below one another (for example, the id being “subconscious” i.e., below the other two).

[9] These are the foundations of the theory of affective intelligence though other scholars have explored them as well.

Tags: ,

Please Consider Donating

Before you download your free e-book, please consider donating to support open access publishing.

E-IR is an independent non-profit publisher run by an all volunteer team. Your donations allow us to invest in new open access titles and pay our bandwidth bills to ensure we keep our existing titles free to view. Any amount, in any currency, is appreciated. Many thanks!

Donations are voluntary and not required to download the e-book - your link to download is below.