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Words actually can hurt, according to UCI researchers’ study of political rhetoric

COSTA MESA, April 28, 2016 - Trump supporters and at anti Trump protesters shout it out on Thursday,
Supporters and opponents of then-presidential candidate Donald Trump confront one another outside a Trump rally in Costa Mesa in April 2016.
(File Photo)

Sticks and stones may break your bones, but words can also hurt you.

OK, that’s not how the old saying goes. But according to a new study by a team of researchers including two UC Irvine professors, negative political rhetoric can adversely affect people’s self-image, stress levels and sense of well-being, in addition to their physical health.

On the other hand, positive rhetoric can have positive effects, according to the study, published in Social Science & Medicine.

“If you want to perpetuate inequalities and make people feel ... they don’t belong, continue with negative rhetoric,” said UCI anthropology professor Leo Chavez, who was joined in the study by Chicano and Latino studies associate professor Belinda Campos. “I think people know these things. But the point of our study is that we showed it statistically and scientifically. It’s not just hearsay. You can actually measure it and show that.”

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The study looked at emotional responses, perceived stress and the overall health of Mexican Americans following exposure to positive, neutral or negative writing or images about immigration. Subjects would report their emotional responses, level of perceived stress and perceived health and well-being.

Open-ended questions focused on how the subjects felt about the rhetoric, how they felt in the world at that moment and whether they felt healthy in relationship to others.

The study involved 280 students at the Irvine campus between August 2016 and June 2017. Participants were defined broadly as having at least one ancestor of Mexican heritage.

Chavez said the study came about partially in response to Donald Trump’s presidential campaign in 2016.

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“I was already sort of ready to think about ‘Is there another way of examining the impact of some of this rhetoric that was going through media and public discourse at the beginning of the Trump campaign?’” Chavez said.

During the campaign, now-President Trump said: “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. ... They’re sending people that have lots of problems. ... They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists, and some, I assume, are good people.”

Chavez said he wanted to test the psychological influence of rhetoric — “does it affect their sense of well-being and their stress level, and why might that be?”

He said subjects in the study frequently used words such as “stereotypes,” “racism” and “ignorant” and that negative stimuli produced negative emotions, including anger.

Students who saw positive stimuli would use words such as “contribute,” “good” and “happy.”

“I think there are two key take-home points from the study,” Campos said. “First, political rhetoric affects people who are targeted in that rhetoric. Second, positive rhetoric can have a favorable effect on one’s well-being. I think this latter finding speaks to what might be possible, even though the harms of negative rhetoric are so salient right now.”

Karina Corona, a UCI doctoral candidate in psychology, helped design the study and establish protocol for data handling.

She suggested it is important to be aware of how immigration is talked about and to create social support for people targeted by negative rhetoric because of its effects on psychological and physical health.

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“I think what the public should know is that words do matter,” Chavez said. “We sort of have become numb to the constant negative rhetoric that we hear from politicians, people in the news stations and radio with the hate speech. You have to recognize that may be good for votes and listening, but what do we want as a society? ...

“Our study is trying to say, let’s think about what we’re doing. Exercise your freedom of expression and speech but think about your expression. … I’d like to see us moderate our political discourse to make people feel like they belong and make our world better.”

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