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

Patrick A. Stewart*, Nick Lee, Erik P. Bucy, Carl Senior

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Objective: 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. Methods: 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). Results: 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.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)281-298
JournalSocial Science Quarterly
Issue number3
Early online date2 Feb 2023
Publication statusPublished - May 2023

Bibliographical note

Copyright © 2023 The Authors. Social Science Quarterly published by Wiley Periodicals LLC on behalf of Southwestern Social Science Association.

This is an open access article under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs License, which permits use and distribution in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited, the use is non-commercial and no modifications or adaptations are made.


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


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