WSU researchers measure emotional response during Biden speech

PULLMAN, Wash. — Nearly 27 million people watched President Joe Biden’s first address to a joint session of Congress last month. His remarks brought out emotions on both sides of the political aisle. Now researchers at Washington State University are studying exactly how those emotions played out.

The responses were recorded using sensors on participants skin to measure the intensity of the emotional response. Researchers were then able to see in real time those responses, but this wasn’t the first time they’ve conducted a study like this.

The participants were grouped between Joe Biden supporters and Donald Trump supporters, specifically, to strengthen the study.

Dr. Paul Bolls from The Edward R. Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University conducted similar research back in October of 2020 during the final presidential debate. However, this time they went deeper.

“We conducted some follow up qualitative interviews to probe those responses a bit more in-depth and get some context for some of the things we saw in the emotional intensity data,” said Dr. Bolls.

The results suggested Trump supporters responded a lot more strongly across the entirety of the speech than Biden supporters did. One of the highest peaks for the Trump side came during the mention of Russia interfering in the 2016 Presidential Election.

“So I responded directly proportionately to Russia’s interference in our elections and the cyber attacks on our government and our business. They did both of these things,” said Biden in that speech.

Dr. Bolls says it didn’t surprise him considering how politically divided the country is at the moment. While the Trump supporters responses were strong the entire speech, Biden supporters didn’t show the same levels.

“So it was clear that from an emotional perspective, I hate to use the word[s] flat or bland, but President Biden was kind of flat and bland with his supporters,” said Bolls.

While incredibly divided there was a common theme discovered during the follow-up interviews that the emotion responses could not have told alone.

“The first question we asked in our interviews was just an opened ended question, ‘What do you remember from the speech?’ Memory from the speech is in the tank. People didn’t walk away from that speech remembering much of anything,” added Bolls.

Dr. Bolls says that detail could be important down the road in 2024 because he did not view Biden’s speech as very impactful, and successful candidates know how to emotionally resonate with voters.