Dynamic Process Tracing Methods in the Study of Political Decision Making
- Philip ChenPhilip ChenDepartment of Political Science, Beloit College
Understanding how individuals make political decisions in a complex and ever-changing world requires recognition of the dynamic nature of the environment, as well as theoretical and methodological strategies to address these complications. As the scholarly understanding of the limits of human cognition expands, researchers can no longer rely on decision-making models that assume unlimited time, resources, and/or abilities of voters. Fortunately, dynamic process tracing models demonstrate the information processing component of decision-making, turning the focus away (slightly) from the decision outcome and toward the ways that people come to these decisions. These models derive from weaker, but more accurate, assumptions about the cognitive abilities of humans and provide critical insight into both the factors that voters consider when making decisions and the ways voters incorporate those factors into their decisions. In addition, thanks to the work of Lau and Redlawsk, these processes are directly observable with their Dynamic Process Tracing Environment (DPTE).
Researchers relying on dynamic process tracing models are now able to assess the influence of political and demographic factors on the pattern, content, and amount of information voters access and rely on when making political decisions. These models offer a more realistic view of voter abilities than rational choice models, as well as providing greater insight into the process of decision-making (rather than the outcome of the process) than much of the work deriving from the Michigan model of public opinion. Additionally, the DPTE offers advantages over earlier static information board studies.
Rather than seeing one’s self in conflict with decades of public opinion research, however, scholars in the dynamic process tracing tradition would be wise to consider their work as complementary. A focus on political variables as outcomes misses a crucial cognitive step: the evaluation of environmental stimuli through the lenses of short- and long-term predispositions. As scholars seek to understand why voters possess certain attitudes, they should ask how those attitudes were formed in the first place. Dynamic process tracing models allow for theorizing about and empirically testing components of the decision-making process previously left uninvestigated.