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Political Stress

Political dialogues, debates, and events can cause considerable levels of stress. In recent years, increasing levels of attention in the media have pointed to the political climate as a key source of stress. According to a recent APA survey, 68% of Americans said the U.S. presidential election was a significant source of stress in their life. This represents an increase from 2016 when 52% of Americans agreed with this statement.


Much of what we know about political stress comes from single item measures from large surveys. For example, the Harris Poll on behalf of the American Psychological Association lists a number of stressors and asks participants to indicate how significant a source of stress is in their lives. Some of these stressors include “the current political climate” and the “2022 U.S. mid-term elections.” Participants have also been asked about the extent to which they agree or disagree with statements such as, “The political climate has caused strain between my family members and me.”


While single item measures may be useful in panel studies to minimize participant burden, single-item measures may not capture the full range of indicators of the underlying construct. In one study, researchers attempted to address this issue by creating a 32-item scale to measure political stress (Smith et al., 2019). The scale is composed of four subscales: physical health (e.g., “Politics has caused me to be stressed”), emotional health (e.g., “Exposure to media outlets promoting views contrary to mine can drive me crazy”), regretted behavior (“I spend more time thinking about politics than I would like”), and social and lifestyle health (e.g., “Differences in political views have damaged a friendship I valued”). The items from the scale were modeled after self-diagnostic measures used by Alcoholics Anonymous and Gamblers Anonymous. Factor analyses tend to support a single factor, though the authors note that subscales could also be used individually. Reliability indicators of the whole scale and subscales are reasonably high though more psychometric testing is still needed (e.g., test-retest reliability, measurement invariance over time). A short 10-item version of the scale was also created. The entire scale focuses on various outcomes of political stressors and events and may extend beyond stress. For example, the item “Politics has led me to hate some people” may be related to or the cause of political stress as opposed to the feeling of stress caused by politics.


Regarding the nomological network of the factors, the political stress factors are negatively related to age, agreeableness, and emotional stability, and are positively related to dogmatism, liberal ideology, and political interest and participation. In other words, people who report higher levels of political stress tend to be younger, less agreeable, more neurotic, more liberal, and more highly engaged in politics. Though these findings provide an interesting initial investigation into the construct of political stress, more research in the measurement of political stress is needed.


Smith KB, Hibbing MV, Hibbing JR (2019) Friends, relatives, sanity, and health: The costs of politics. PLOS ONE 14(9): e0221870.

Authored by David Newman. Reviewed by John Jost, PhD, New York University, and Pete Ditto, PhD, University of California, Irvine (pending). 

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