The Wilson Quarterly

Since 2011, the crisis in Syria has incited a wide range of emotions and political opinions among the people of Turkey. Withstanding mortar fire attacks in border towns and absorbing a deluge of Syrian refugees, Turkey has felt the conflict more acutely than most of its neighbors. The wildfire takeover of Syrian and Iraqi territory by ISIS militants in 2014 has only compounded the threat, bringing the war within viewing distance of the Turkish side of the Syrian border.

The conflict has proved itself a quagmire for the AKP, Turkey’s ruling political party, as President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan doggedly pursues an elusive resolution to what is both a foreign policy conundrum and domestic security crisis. Yet, despite this clear threat, Turkey has not deployed its own troops into hostile territory. And despite Turkish citizens’ horror over the murder of their fellow countrymen, many remain staunch in their disapproval of direct military intervention. Why is this tragedy, this palpable fear over safety, unable to sway Turkish public opinion?

Scholars have found that negative emotions spur a constituent to learn more about the current political environment, while positive emotions foster a complacency with one’s existing, however lacking, understanding. Cengiz Erisen of TOBB University of Economics found these discoveries intriguing, but believed a variable was missing: the impact of one’s social group. Known as “social network analysis,” it is one of political science’s more novel analytic methods. In his article “Emotions, social networks and Turkish political attitudes on the Syria Crisis,” Erisen investigates the interplay of emotion and social ties in the formation of public opinion. For his case study, Erisen required real emotions and real social ties; he opted to explore Turkish citizens and their political attitudes towards the Syria crisis.

Working with a sample of 243 Turkish university students, Erisen invoked either fear or anger to see how the emotion affected the students’ political beliefs. Participants were asked to write out answers to two questions: “What aspect of the events in Syria makes you the most _____? ” and “Why does it make you so _____?” The blanks alternately held “ANGRY” or “FEARFUL,” printed in all-caps for emphasis. The study’s subjects were told to respond so that someone reading their response would become angry or fearful. In this way, the writing exercises aimed to evoke anger or fear in the author.

Negative emotions, like fear, spur people to learn more about the current political environment. 

Positive emotions foster complacency.

Conceptualizing emotions for academic use is a tricky business. “Valence” is a term used to describe whether an emotion is positive or negative. Some scholars argue that different emotions of the same valence (fear and anger, for example) result in different behavior — the so-called “discrete” approach. Others hold that emotions of the same valence produce the same behavior — the Affective Intelligence Model (AIM). Through the AIM lens, fear and anger are indistinguishable: a participant will behave the same whether she is angry or fearful. Initially, Erisen projected that his findings would align with the discrete approach. He ultimately concluded, however, that AIM best explains the study’s results: Whether manipulated to feel fear or anger, participants appeared eager to accept reading materials about the Syria crisis, which Erisen offered after their work was complete.

To analyze the influence of participants’ social networks, Erisen considered the makeup of each participant’s social group. The participants were asked a series of questions to assess four characteristics of their networks of family, friends, and acquaintances: size, coherence (how ideologically similar a network’s members are), sophistication (their level of education and political engagement), and cohesion (how frequently they communicate). The participants’ acceptance or rejection of information on the Syria crisis was then analyzed in relation to their social groups. Erisen found that participants demonstrated greater interest in receiving information when either their social network was large or sophistication was high. Participants were less inclined to seek further knowledge when coherence was high. “If individuals maintain a social network in which there is no political variance,” wrote Erisen, “then they close themselves off from different political points of view.”

The study also included questions to assess how individuals’ emotions and personal social networks affect our perceptions of the Syria crisis’s threat to Turkey. Unsurprisingly, those experiencing fear or anger were more inclined to rate the crisis as a larger threat to Turkey. As for the influence of social groups, Erisen concluded that increased coherence and cohesion decrease one’s threat perception: “The more people communicate with like-minded political ideologues, and the more they see certain individuals more often than others in the network, the more the social network for these individuals becomes a social bubble presenting the view that the Syria crisis is not a threat.”

Whether or not we’re in Turkey and staring down rampaging militants, our political attitudes are not formed in the rational vacuum of the mind; the people around us, and the fickle emotions we experience, play a role. One positive takeaway from Erisen’s work is that there’s a tangible value in surrounding yourself with diverse opinions: the more varied your friends’ beliefs are, the more obliged you are to strengthen the quality of your own thoughts and arguments. But a more somber, if unsurprising, takeaway remains: political fear-mongering wields considerable power to sway public opinion.

* * *

The Source: Cengiz Erisen, “Emotions, social networks and Turkish political attitudes on the Syria Crisis,” Southeast European and Black Sea Studies 15.1 (2015): 1-18.

Read Next

Rwanda’s overlooked lessons on gender equality