Amanda Friesen has been named as the Canada Research Chair in Political Psychology (Tier 2)

September 01, 2023

Amanda Friesen, Professor in the Department of Political Science

Amanda Friesen is bringing together the fields of political science and psychology, to better understand how people react to politics and political engagement, breaking down barriers of political entry for some people. 

Friesen is a professor in the department of political science, and cross-appointed with the department of Psychology. She has been named as the Canada Research Chair in Political Psychology (Tier 2) – a topic that unites the two disciplines.  

She is interested in who gets engaged in politics, who does not, and the reason behind this level of engagement. This includes whether there are institutional, cultural, and social reasons that exclude people from political activities, as well as whether there are individual traits and characteristics that create challenges to engagement. 

These two dimensions interact in ways that may be unexpected. Friesen said an individual personality trait is not enough to determine how someone may act or react to different situations, but rather, it is dependent on the experiences a person may have, based on other social identities. As an example, she pointed to extraversion.   

“People may think that if you are extraverted, you love to talk to people, you love to be social, and you may also love politics. Some research shows that this works differently for men and women,” she said, “Extraverted men seem to really enjoy all parts of politics – social parts, reading about politics – but for women, it doesn’t work the same way. An extraverted woman may not be as likely to participate in politics as an extraverted man.” 

Working with Erin Heerey, a professor in psychology, Friesen is running the “Social Signals” study, measuring micro-emotions and expressions that occur during inter-personal political and non-political conversations. Much of the research on how people react to political discussion is based on self-report surveys, dependent on how people think they reacted. Friesen and Heerey will gather physiological reactions and changes people experience when they are engaged in these discussions – such as heart rate variability and micro-expressions – to determine how those may match the subjects’ reported feelings. 

“With survey self-reports there are always elements of social desirability, of people not having accurate estimation or recollection of a situation,” she said. “If we can figure out what are the kinds of political topics or themes, or certain tones of conversation, that elicit strong physiological responses, we can understand what might be discouraging people from engaging in certain kinds of political situations.” 

The Body Politics Lab 

Along with the CRC position, Friesen has received a Canada Foundation for Innovation grant to establish The Body Politics Lab, with equipment to conduct the physiological measurements. This will allow a better understanding of these reactions and will provide training opportunities for students.   

“Building a lab team science model, where graduate and undergraduate students are highly involved in research, in shaping the research project, and learning skills and methods along the way is a central part of this CRC for me,” Friesen said. 

Through her work, she hopes to create opportunities for people to have more productive political discussions. While many people think about political discussions they may have with their partner or others with whom they have an established relationships and share understanding, many political discussions occur between strangers. 

“A decent percentage of the time when we talk about politics could be at our kids’ activities, are when we are on an airplane or in line somewhere. Someone may make a comment about a topic, like the weather, and it turns to climate change. We have either had these conversations or have seen it,” said Friesen. “There’s these really interesting opportunities when strangers talk politics, for there to be a spontaneous understanding of other perspectives.” 

If people are able to find common ground in these conversations, Friesen said that could help to better design deliberative spaces for people to talk about politics. 

Understand how physical perceptions impact judgement 

Among her future projects, Friesen aims to study how people evaluate political candidates based on physical characteristics, such as weight and gender expression. 

Studies have shown that taller candidates receive favourable ratings, as well as male candidates with strong jaw-lines. Friesen wants to understand if people will judge candidates they see as overweight as being less competent or how gender expression through physical appearance impacts leadership evaluations.  

As with her other studies, she will gather data through a representative, online survey, and drill down to look at mechanisms and causes through lab studies tracking physical reactions and things like eye-tracking. 

The use of physiology, genetics and life science methods is a very small group in political science,” she said. “I look forward to continuing to build collaborations across psychology and political science.” 

Friesen is committed to open science practices and has published several registered reports, recorded pre-analysis plans on Open Science Framework. A book she co-edited, An Epidemic among My People: Religion, Politics and COVID-19 in the United States” and was recently included in the Knowledge Unlatched Select 2023 Humanities and Social Science Frontlist Collection for Open Access publication, making it available for anyone to access.