Emotional response to U.K. political party leader facial displays of affiliation, reward, and ambiguity during Brexit

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affiliative smiles, Brexit, emotional response, facial displays, reward smiles



On December 12, 2019, the United Kingdom's ruling Conservative Party called an election that put the country's 2016 “Brexit” referendum on leaving the European Union to the test. The divisive campaign and a polarized electorate culminated in large losses by opposition Labour and Liberal Democratic parties. Amid a polarized electorate, lingering questions arise as to whether the election results reflect more upon partisan ties or the respective party leaders' ability to emotionally connect with followers through their nonverbal behavior.


Using a unique pre-registered design, this study considers the emotional response to leaders of the three major U.K. political parties in the week prior to the December 2019 election by drawing upon a national sample of 546 partisan participants. We examine self-reported happiness, affinity, anger, and distress in response to reward and affiliative smiles as well as ambiguous facial displays in short videos shown without sound featuring Conservative Party leader Boris Johnson and his opponents Jeremy Corbyn (Labour Party) and Jo Swinson (Liberal Democratic Party).


The findings of this pre-registered study suggests partisan identity plays a powerful role in empathetic and counter-empathetic responses to leader facial displays generally. Further analysis reveals a more nuanced response to the competing leaders’ facial displays with followers of all three parties responding to the different smiles in distinct manners.


This article was published with support from the Open Access Publishing Fund administered through the University of Arkansas Libraries.