Channeling Hearts and Minds: Advocacy Organizations, Cognitive-Emotional Currents, and Public Conversation


Do advocacy organizations stimulate public conversation about social problems by engaging in rational debate, or by appealing to emotions? We argue that rational and emotional styles of communication ebb and flow within public discussions about social problems due to the alternating influence of social contagion and saturation effects. These “cognitive-emotional currents” create an opportunity structure whereby advocacy organizations stimulate more conversation if they produce emotional messages after prolonged rational debate or vice versa. We test this hypothesis using automated text-analysis techniques that measure the frequency of cognitive and emotional language within two advocacy fields on Facebook over 1.5 years, and a web-based application that offered these organizations a complimentary audit of their social media outreach in return for sharing nonpublic data about themselves, their social media audiences, and the broader social context in which they interact. Time-series models reveal strong support for our hypothesis, controlling for 33 confounding factors measured by our Facebook application. We conclude by discussing the implications of our findings for future research on public deliberation, how social contagions relate to each other, and the emerging field of computational social science.

American Sociological Review