Quirks & Quarks

Could modern political strife be making us sick?

A new study suggests engaging in politics can take a major toll on people's lives

A new study suggests engaging in politics can take a major toll on people's lives

Staffers and supporters react as former secretary of state Hillary Clinton concedes the presidential election at the New Yorker Hotel in New York, on Nov. 9, 2016. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
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In a survey the researchers call the first of its kind, American academics have measured the negative social, physical and emotional consequences people feel because of divisive politics. 

The study, published in the journal PLOS One, lays bare the costs of closely following politics: it can result in "frayed personal relationships, compromised emotional stability, and even physical problems."

Around the world in modern democracies, politics seems to be getting more divisive, polarized and antagonistic. With all the arguments on social media and with extended family at Thanksgiving dinners, political discussions can become heated. Internet trolls come out, tempers flare and dinners get ruined.

"Typically we think of political interest and political engagement as a civic good — this is the stuff that makes democracy work," said Kevin Smith, a professor of political science from the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, who led the study, in conversation with Quirks & Quarks host Bob McDonald. 

"At least in the current political environment, our survey seems to suggest that there potentially is a very real cost to that interest engagement."

If our numbers are even halfway accurate, I mean, there's tens and tens of millions of Americans who see politics as exacting a serious toll on their social emotional psychological and even physical health.- Kevin Smith, University of Nebraska, Lincoln

Measured impacts of political engagement

Smith and his colleagues constructed a survey built on questions used by Alcoholics and Gamblers Anonymous to measure the impact on gambling and alcohol on people's feeling of wellness. They adapted the questions to look into what extent politics were causing problems in Americans' lives. 

They conducted their survey on a representative sample of the U.S. adult population in March 2017 following the contentious U.S. presidential election. 

A protester who was wearing a media pass is restrained after interrupting the Leader of the Conservative Party Andrew Scheer as he was speaking to members of the Chambre de commerce du Montreal on Sept. 6. (Peter McCabe/The Canadian Press)

Smith said they got some "eye-popping results" from the people that were surveyed about how politics was affecting them, which he found shocking: 

  • 40 per cent felt stressed 
  • 12 per cent felt their physical health was adversely affected
  • 20 per cent were losing sleep
  • 20 per cent had a friendship damaged
  • 4 per cent experienced thoughts of suicide

"If our numbers are even halfway accurate, I mean, there's tens and tens of millions of Americans who see politics as exacting a serious toll on their social, emotional, psychological and even physical health," said Smith.

Impact skewed by political affiliation 

The results of this survey skewed heavily with the political spectrum. Those on the political left were more likely to report experiencing negative effects than those on the right. 

Smith said he'd really like to know how the results of his study would have been different if the Democrats had won the U.S. federal election.

"That's something that we're really interested in ourselves," said Smith.

Unlike the recent protests in Hong Kong, as seen in this photo, political engagement in the U.S. and in Canada has remained relatively quite peaceful. (Mohd Rasfan/AFP/Getty Images)

Limitations of study

As far as Smith knows, no other study has ever asked this kind of comprehensive survey about the negative effects of politics in people's lives. 

Until this study, which he describes as a baseline study, is repeated, Smith won't know whether they captured a particular moment in time "when nerves were pretty raw" or if their findings are more generalizable. 

"I think it would be a reasonable suggestion that with some of the things that's going on in Canada right now, we might see similar sorts of numbers," said Smith.

"One of the things that we're really hoping is that people will, in effect, swipe our survey and ask in different places at different times, so we can try to get a handle on those comparative facts."

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