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Article

Dynamic Process Tracing Methods in the Study of Political Decision Making  

Philip Chen

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.

Article

Emotions in Foreign Policy Decision Making  

Rose McDermott

There are lots of ways that emotions have been studied in psychology and various ways that their use has been examined in the context of foreign policy. Perhaps one of the most useful ways to examine the influence of emotion on foreign policy is through the lens of risk and threat assessment. Some approaches to emotion tend to categorize emotions as valence-based, in terms of broad-based positivity or negativity. Certainly, elements of this kind of approach can be useful, particularly in terms of thinking about the ways in which political conservatives appear to have a negativity bias. However, an investigation of discrete emotions allows a more sophisticated and nuanced exploration of the effect of emotion on risk analysis and threat assessment, in particular the effect of fear, anger, and disgust on decision-making under conditions of risky threat. Genetic, as well as environmental, circumstances can influence individual variance in the experience and expression of such emotions, and any comprehensive approach to understanding the influence of emotion on decision-making should take all these factors into account.

Article

Evolution and Political Decision Making  

Anthony C. Lopez

The application of evolutionary theories or models to explain political decision making is quickly maturing, fundamentally interdisciplinary, and irreducibly complex. This hybridization has yielded significant benefits, including real progress toward understanding the conditions under which cooperation is possible, and a clearer understanding of the apparently “irrational” drivers of political violence. Decision making requires a nervous system that conditions motivation and behavior upon adaptively relevant cues in the environment. Such systems do not exist because they maximize utility, enlightenment, or scientific truth; they exist because on average they led to outcomes that were reproductively beneficial in ancestral environments. The reproductive challenges faced by our ancestors included not only ecological problems of predator avoidance but also political problems such as inter-group threat and the distribution of resources within groups. Therefore, evolutionary approaches to political decision making require direct and deep engagement of the logic whereby natural selection builds adaptations. This view of human psychology yields valuable insights on the domain specificity of political decision making as well as the psychological consequences of mismatch between modern and ancestral environments. In other words, there is accumulating evidence that many of the complex adaptations of the human brain were designed to solve the many problems of ancestral politics. This discussion begins by distinguishing evolutionary approaches from other frameworks used to explain political decision making, such as rational choice, or realism in international relations. Since evolutionary models of political decision making have now produced decades of original theoretical and empirical contributions, we are in a useful position to take stock of this research landscape. Doing so crystalizes the promises, perils, and scope of evolutionary approaches to politics.

Article

Expected Utility and Political Decision Making  

Jona Linde

Expected utility theory is widely used to formally model decisions in situations where outcomes are uncertain. As uncertainty is arguably commonplace in political decisions, being able to take that uncertainty into account is of great importance when building useful models and interpreting empirical results. Expected utility theory has provided possible explanations for a host of phenomena, from the failure of the median voter theorem to the making of vague campaign promises and the delegation of policymaking. A good expected utility model may provide alternative explanations for empirical phenomena and can structure reasoning about the effect of political actors’ goals, circumstances, and beliefs on their behavior. For example, expected utility theory shows that whether the median voter theorem can be expected to hold or not depends on candidates’ goals (office, policy, or vote seeking), and the nature of their uncertainty about voters. In this way expected utility theory can help empirical researchers derive hypotheses and guide them towards the data required to exclude alternative explanations. Expected utility has been especially successful in spatial voting models, but the range of topics to which it can be applied is far broader. Applications to pivotal voting or politicians’ redistribution decisions show this wider value. However, there is also a range of promising topics that have received ample attention from empirical researchers, but that have so far been largely ignored by theorists applying expected utility theory. Although expected utility theory has its limitations, more modern theories that build on the expected utility framework, such as prospect theory, can help overcome these limitations. Notably these extensions rely on the same modeling techniques as expected utility theory and can similarly elucidate the mechanisms that may explain empirical phenomena. This structured way of thinking about behavior under uncertainty is the main benefit provided by both expected utility theory and its extensions.

Article

Fast and Frugal Heuristics  

Konstantinos V. Katsikopoulos

Polymath, and also political scientist, Herbert Simon dared to point out that the amounts of time, information, computation, and other resources required for maximizing utility far exceed what is possible when real people have to make real decisions in the real world. In psychology, there are two main approaches to studying actual human judgment and decision making—the heuristics-and-bias and the fast-and-frugal-heuristics research programs. A distinctive characteristic of the fast-and-frugal-heuristics program is that it specifies formal models of heuristics and attempts to determine when people use them and what performance they achieve. These models rely on a few pieces of information that are processed in computationally simple ways. The information and computation are within human reach, which means that people rely on information they have relatively easy access to and employ simple operations such as summing or comparing numbers. Research in the laboratory and in the wild has found that most people use fast and frugal heuristics most of the time if a decision must be made quickly, information is expensive financially or cognitively to gather, or a single/few attributes of the problem strongly point towards an option. The ways in which people switch between heuristics is studied in the framework of the adaptive toolbox. Work employing computer simulations and mathematical analyses has uncovered conditions under which fast and frugal heuristics achieve higher performance than benchmarks from statistics and machine learning, and vice versa. These conditions constitute the theory of ecological rationality. This theory suggests that fast and frugal heuristics perform better than complex optimization models if the available information is of low quality or scarce, or if there exist dominant options or attributes. The bias-variance decomposition of statistical prediction error, which is explained in layperson’s terms, underpins these claims. Research on fast and frugal heuristics suggests a governance approach not based on nudging, but on boosting citizen competence.

Article

Foreign Policy Learning  

Guy Ziv

An improved understanding of foreign policy learning necessitates a clarification of what foreign policy learning is, who learns, and how such learning occurs. Cognitive and social psychologists, sociologists, and political scientists situated in a variety of subfields have contributed to the understanding of foreign policy learning, a multidisciplinary area of inquiry. Learning theorists seek to show how a change in an actor’s beliefs due to experience or observation can lead to changes at other units, such as organizations and within the government. This cognitive dimension is important because actors may pursue a new course of action for politically expedient reasons rather than having genuinely “learned”—a distinction referred to as “complex” vs. “simple” learning. Foreign policy learning can be internal or external. The former type of learning entails what individuals, governments, or organizations learn from their prior experience. Learning theorists who focus on the individual level of analysis borrow insights from political psychology in an effort to shed light on the personal characteristics, the belief structures, and the cognitive psychological mechanisms of political actors that can better inform policymaking. Leaders whose cognitive structures are described as relatively open and complex—like Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, whose learning brought about the dramatic changes that ultimately led to the demise of the Soviet Union—are more likely to alter their beliefs than their cognitively closed and simple counterparts. Yet external learning occurs as well. Policy diffusion studies show that learning can result from demonstration effects. Foreign policy learning via diffusion is not instrumental, but instead occurs through osmosis. Privatization in the former communist states, China’s Foreign Direct Investment liberalization, and the diffusion of environmental norms in the European Union are examples of learning that is contagious, not chosen. A more conscious mode of learning than diffusion is policy transfer, which entails policymakers’ transferring ideas from one country and implementing them in another. Technological innovations, unlike lessons that involve political ideology, are generally easier lessons to transfer—for example, Japan’s success in applying lessons from the West to modernize its army in the second half of the 19th century. The constraints to foreign policy learning are formidable. Decision makers are not always open to reconsidering views that challenge their beliefs. Leaders tend to resort to, and misuse, analogies that prevent learning. Even a change in a decision maker’s beliefs may not lead to foreign policy change, given the myriad political pressures, bureaucratic hurdles, and economic realities that often get in the way of implementing new ideas. Indeed, foreign policy learning and foreign policy change are not synonymous. Scholars face significant obstacles in studying foreign policy learning. There is no consensus on the definition of learning, on what constitutes learning, on how actors learn, when they learn, or on how to assess whether learning has taken place. Despite attempts to make sense of the confusion, scholars face the daunting challenge of improving understanding of how learning is shaped and funneled through the interaction of agents and the structures in which they are situated, as well as the relationship between learning and foreign policy change.

Article

Gender Stereotyping in Political Decision Making  

Nichole M. Bauer

Women are under-represented at every level of elected office in the United States. As of 2018, women held just under 20% of seats in Congress, 25% of state legislative seats across the country, only six women serve as governor, and, of course, a woman has yet to win the presidency. The political under-representation of women is not unique to the American context. Indeed, women’s under-representation is a feature of other Western Democracies. Even under the leadership of female prime ministers, women hold only 32% of seats in the United Kingdom parliament and 31% of seats in the German parliament. Conventional wisdom suggests that feminine stereotypes may disadvantage female candidates. Feminine stereotypes characterize women as sensitive, emotional, and weak, and these are qualities voters do not traditionally associate with political leadership. Rather, voters associate political leadership with masculine traits such as being tough, aggressive, or assertive. The extent to which voters use these stereotypes in political decision making in the American context is not entirely clear. There are three ways that feminine and masculine stereotypes can affect political decision making: candidate strategies, campaign news coverage, and vote choice decision. The alignment between masculine stereotypes and political leadership frequently pressures female candidates to emphasize masculine qualities over feminine qualities in campaign messages. Motivating these masculine messages is the perception that voters see female candidates as lacking the masculine qualities voters desire in political leaders. Male candidates, because of the alignment between masculinity and leadership roles, do not face this pressure. Female candidates will, however, highlight feminine stereotypes when these strategies will afford them a distinct electoral advantage. The use of masculinity in candidate strategy leads the news media, in turn, to use masculine stereotypes rather than feminine stereotypes in their coverage of both female and male candidates. The ways that candidates and the news media engage with gender stereotypes affects how voters use these concepts to form impressions of female and male candidates. Voters will use feminine stereotypes as heuristics to form impressions of the ideological and issue priorities of female candidates. Feminine stereotypes can hurt the electoral prospects of female candidates, but the negative effect of feminine stereotypes only occurs under a limited set of conditions. Voters will use feminine stereotypes to rate female candidates negatively when female candidates explicitly emphasize feminine qualities, such as being warm or compassionate, in campaign messages. But, voters respond positively to female candidates who emphasize positive masculine qualities. In sum, whether gender stereotypes affect voter decision-making depends on the extent to which voters see messages, either from campaigns or the news media, that reflect femininity or masculinity.

Article

Genetics and Heritability Research on Political Decision Making  

Levente Littvay

In 2005, political scientists claimed that parent-child similarities, in addition to parenting, socialization, or shared social factors by the family, are also driven by genetic similarity. This claim upended a century of orthodoxy in political science. Many social scientists are uncomfortable with this concept, and this discomfort often stems from a multitude of misunderstandings. Claims about the genetics and heritability of political phenomena predate 2005 and wave of studies over the decade that followed swept through political science and then died down as quickly as they came. The behavior genetic research agenda faces several challenges within political science, including (a) resistance to these ideas within all of the social sciences, (b) difficulties faced by scholars in the production of meaningful theoretical and empirical contributions, and (c) developments in the field of genetics and their (negative) impact on the related scholarship within the study of politics.

Article

Heuristics and Biases in Political Decision Making  

Céline Colombo and Marco R. Steenbergen

Heuristics have rapidly become a core concept in the study of political behavior. The term heuristic stems from the ancient Greek heuriskein, which means “to discover.” In psychology and political science, the term is used to describe cognitive shortcuts in decision making under uncertainty. The key idea is that decision makers with limited time, information, or resources use such shortcuts, thereby bypassing a certain amount of information to reach appropriate decisions. In this sense, heuristics contrast with classical rational choice. Using heuristics allows efficient decision making but can lead to biases, errors, and suboptimal decisions. Heuristics allow decision makers to draw inferences, to fill in information gaps, and to form an impression of the decision at hand. Indeed, they may be the only way to come to grips with uncertainty, especially when a decision is urgent. In political science, the concept of heuristics, originating in mathematics, economics, and psychology, has long been hailed as a possible remedy to citizens’ lack of political knowledge. Citizens participate in democratic decisions, but these decisions often pose high cognitive and informational demands. Ideally, citizens with little information about a political issue or about a candidate could use heuristics in order to reach decisions resembling those of their more well-informed peers. More recently, however, the possible biases introduced by reliance on heuristics, in particular partisan bias and a lack of consideration of different alternatives, has received more attention. Moreover, some studies show that heuristics can be used most efficiently by voters who are relatively well informed and highly interested in politics. The question of whether, or under which circumstances, heuristics can be a useful tool for democratic decision making has not yet been answered conclusively.

Article

How Motivation Influences Political Decision Making  

Brian J. Gaines and Benjamin R. Kantack

Although motivation undergirds virtually all aspects of political decision making, its influence is often unacknowledged, or taken for granted, in behavioral political science. Motivations are inevitably important in generic models of decision theory. In real-world politics, two crucially important venues for motivational effects are the decision of whether or not to vote, and how (or, whether) partisanship and other policy views color information-collection, so that people choose and then justify, rather than studying options before choosing. For researchers, motivations of survey respondents and experimental subjects are deeply important, but only just beginning to garner the attention they deserve.

Article

Ideology and Values in Political Decision Making  

Christopher Weber

The study of ideology hinges upon several important characteristics. First, the term “ideology” may connote different things to voters. To some, it indicates a preference for “conservatism” over “liberalism”; others adopt a more nuanced perspective, identifying ideology as “libertarianism,” “environmentalism,” and “populism” (among others). Some view it is an identity. Ideological labels are entrenched in political and non-political identities. The term “conservative” may signal a social orientation only loosely related to conservatism’s philosophical tenets (e.g., limiting the size and scope of the federal government). “Liberalism” or “progressivism,” signal a different worldview that also perhaps loosely related to the philosophical characteristics of modern (American) liberalism (e.g., “expanding the social safety net”). Ideology is also a means of cognitive organization; it is used to make sense of oftentimes complex public policy. Individuals organize policy beliefs around organizing principles, such as a preference for reducing the size of the federal government. Considering this heterogeneity, it is important to use the term with precision, in order to better understand how voters rely upon ideology in their decision calculus. Second, ideology is a central characteristic in the general structure of political beliefs. It acts as a lens through which the political and social world is interpreted. Third, ideology is functional in nature. Ideological preferences often fulfill a voter’s unique psychological, motivational, and personality-oriented characteristics. Finally, ideology has unique consequences in contemporary politics, as evidenced by increased political polarization, partisan-ideological sorting, and ideologically divisive rhetoric.

Article

The Influence of Psychological Security Maintenance on Political Decision Making  

Joshua Hart

People are strongly motivated to maintain psychological security, or equanimity, which causes them to process and act on information in ways that are favorable to protecting against anxiety (i.e., psychological “defense”). People rely on at least three interlocking mechanisms to maintain security—investment in social relationships, self-esteem, and meaningful worldviews—and these mechanisms perfuse nearly every aspect of life. By consequence, people’s political beliefs, attitudes, and leadership preferences reflect motivated efforts to maintain security. Research derived from terror management theory and related theories of security maintenance shows that security needs influence political decision making in three major ways. First, they amplify people’s affinity for political stances that affirm their preexisting worldviews and bolster their sense of belongingness, affiliation, and esteem. Second, security needs tend to draw people toward conservative viewpoints; however, a more potent consequence might be to harden or polarize existing political stances. Finally, security needs cause attraction to charismatic and powerful political personalities (i.e., politicians). Although the theoretical basis for these conclusions is strong, and there is research to support them, it remains challenging to apply this analysis to specific persons, situations, and political issues because it is not always clear which security-relevant facets within complex circumstances will be most salient or influential. Nevertheless, a security-based analysis of political decision making has impressive explanatory potential and helps observers to understand polarization and “tribal” tendencies in politics, among other things.

Article

Laboratory Versus Field Experiments in Political Decision-Making Research  

Aaron Hoffman

It can be difficult for political scientists and economists to know when to use laboratory experiments in their research programs. There are longstanding concerns in economics and political science about the external invalidity of laboratory results. Making matters worse, a number of prominent academics recommend using field experiments instead of laboratory experiments to learn about human behavior because field experiments do not have the same external invalidity problems that plague laboratory experiments. The criticisms of laboratory experiments as externally invalid, however, overlook the many advantages of laboratory experiments that derive from their external invalidity. Laboratory experiments are preferable to field experiments at examining hypothetical scenarios (e.g., When automated vehicles dominate the roadways, what principles do people want their automobiles to rely on?), at minimizing erroneous causal inferences (e.g., Did a treatment produce the reaction researchers are studying?), and at replicating and extending previous studies. Rather than being a technique that should be abandoned in favor of field experiments, political scientists and economists should embrace laboratory experiments when testing theoretically important but empirically unusual scenarios, tracing experimental processes, and reproducing and building on prior experiments.

Article

Leaderless Group Decisions  

Seong-Jae Min

Leaderless group decision-making denotes the idea that political decisions from a non-hierarchical discussion structure can be more legitimate and effective than those from a hierarchical structure. Since the latter half of the 20th century, such decision-making has been practiced widely in community groups, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), “deliberation” forums, as well as in the business and management settings. While one may argue its origins go back to Athenian direct democracy, it was the zeal of the 1960s participatory democracy movement in the United States that produced the more sophisticated principles, philosophies, and mechanics of leaderless group decision-making. The progressive social movement activists at that time considered non-hierarchical groups as ethically appropriate to their causes. Since then, this tradition of leaderless group decision-making processes has been adopted in many grassroots social movements. Debates and controversies abound concerning leaderless group decision-making. It has been a normative imperative for many social activists to adopt decision-making in a leaderless manner. Research to date, however, has produced no conclusive evidence that leaderless group discussion results in better or more effective decisions. Proponents argue that members of a leaderless group would develop greater capacities for self-governance because in such a setting they can take more personal and egalitarian initiatives to organize activities of the group. This, in turn, would lead to better group dynamics and discussion, and, eventually, better decisions. Critics suggest that leaderless groups are slow and inflexible in decision-making and that the supposedly leaderless groups usually end up with leaders because of the social dynamics and human nature present in group interactions. Regardless of its potential benefits and problems, the ideals of deliberative and participatory democracy are strongly propelling this egalitarian, discourse-based form of group decision-making. Researchers will gain a great deal of insight from literature in deliberation concerning the functions, problems, and future directions of leaderless groups. In addition, there is a need to study leaderless groups in a more multi-faceted way, as research to date has been dominated by psychology-based quantitative assessment of groups. Qualitative and ethnographic approaches will be helpful to further assess the dynamics of leaderless group decision-making.

Article

Leaders and Foreign Policy: Surveying the Evidence  

Stephen Benedict Dyson and Thomas Briggs

Political Science accounts of international politics downplay the role of political leaders, and a survey of major journals reveals that fewer than 3% of all articles focus on leaders. This is in stark contrast to public discourse about politics, where leadership influence over events is regarded as a given. This article suggests that, at a minimum, leaders occupy a space in fully specified chains of causality as the aggregators of material and ideational forces, and the transmitters of those forces into authoritative political action. Further, on occasion a more important role is played by the leader: as a crucial causal variable aggregating material and ideational energies in an idiosyncratic fashion and thereby shaping decisions and outcomes. The majority of the article is devoted to surveying the comparatively small literature on political leaders within International Relations scholarship. The article concludes by inviting our colleagues to be receptive to the idiosyncrasies, as well as the regularities, of statespersonship.

Article

Leadership and Change in the Public Sector  

Jose Luis Mendez

The nature and evolution of the field of studies of public sector leadership can be understood by focusing on four theoretical orientations: institutional, transformational, collaborative, and contingent. The first one argues that, within a democracy, public sector executives do not exercise—or should not exercise—a strong leadership. The second one, on the contrary, stresses their “transformational” role. The third orientation favors more horizontal leading styles, while the last one argues that all the previous types of leadership could emerge depending on the specific conditions. Each of these four orientations takes a specific position toward change and has led to a considerable number of books and articles. This clearly shows that leadership is an important issue in the study of the public sector. It also shows the theoretical fragmentation present in this field and that there is not a fit-all type of leadership. Paradoxically, there is still a noticeable lack of research on some topics, such as the causes and effects of leadership. Thus, there is not a clear understanding yet of the extent to which leading within government makes a positive difference and, in case it does, of how to make it happen. Filling these voids would certainly help this field to gain greater relevance within the wider field of leadership studies as well as in the social sciences in general.

Article

LGBTQ Politics in Media and Culture  

Thomas J. Billard and Larry Gross

As the primary vector by which society tells itself about itself, popular media transmit ideas of what behavior is acceptable and whose identities are legitimate, thereby perpetuating and, at times, transforming the social order. Thus, media have been key targets of LGBT advocacy and activism and important contributors to the political standing of LGBT people. Of course, media are not a monolith, and different types of media inform different parts of society. Community media have been an important infrastructure through which gays and lesbians and, separately, transgender people formed shared identities and developed collective political consciousness. Political media, such as newspapers, news websites, and network and cable television news broadcasts, inform elites and the mass public alike, making them an important influence on public opinion and political behavior. Entertainment media, such as television and film, cultivate our culture’s shared values and ideas, which infuse into the public’s political beliefs and attitudes. Generally speaking, the literature on LGBTQ politics and the media is biased toward news and public affairs media over fictional and entertainment media, though both are important influences on LGBTQ citizens’ political engagement, as well as on citizens’ public opinion toward LGBTQ rights and their subsequent political behaviors. In the case of the former, media—particularly LG(BT) community media—have played an important role in facilitating the formation of a shared social and then political identity, as well as fueling the formation of, first, separate gay and lesbian and transgender movements and then a unified LGBTQ movement. Moreover, digital media have enabled new modes of political organizing and exercising sociopolitical influence, making LGBTQ activism more diverse, more intersectional, more pluralistic, and more participatory. In the case of the latter, (news) media representations of LGBTQ individuals initially portrayed them in disparaging and disrespectful ways. Over time, representations in both news and entertainment media have come to portray them in ways that legitimate their identities and their political claims. These representations, in turn, have had profound impacts on public opinion toward LGBTQ rights and citizens’ LGBTQ-relevant voting behavior. Yet, the literature on these representations and their effects overwhelmingly focuses on gays and lesbians at the expense of bisexual and transgender people, and this work is done primarily in U.S. and Anglophone contexts, limiting our understanding of the relationships between LGBTQ politics and the media globally.

Article

Long- and Short-term Memory Structure in Political Decision Making  

James Jaccard

Cognitive models of political behavior and political decision making have been a staple of research in political science for decades. Recent advances in cognitive psychology and behavioral decision making underscore the utility of models that incorporate memory dynamics for understanding a wide range of political behaviors at the individual level. Four memory systems are relevant; sensory memory, short-term memory, working memory, and long-term memory. Information moves from sensory memory to short-term memory stores, a subset of which is then acted upon by working memory. Working memory manipulates its contents through processes such as reasoning, comprehension, attention, integration, and retrieval of supplementary information from long-term memory. Working memory ultimately holds and processes the thoughts and feelings that are salient to an individual at a given point in time. Memory models of decision making elaborate what cognitions and emotions are likely to enter working memory and how those cognitions and emotions are combined and integrated when making a behavioral decision.

Article

The Media and Political Behavior  

Hajo G. Boomgaarden and Rüdiger Schmitt-Beck

Media are key for the functioning of democracy. It is the essential link between politics and citizens, providing critical information and interpretation of politics and room for debate. Given this central role of the media for democratic political processes, questions about how mediated political information would affect citizens’ perceptions of and attitudes toward politics, as well as ultimately political behavior, have been dominant in research in the field of political communication. While vast amounts of mid-range theories and empirical insights speak in favor of influences of media on citizens, there is little in terms of a universal theoretical framework guiding political media effects research, which makes it difficult to give a conclusive answer to the question: how and, in particular, how much do the media matter? It may matter for some people under some conditions in some contexts relating to some outcome variables. Technological changes in media systems pose additional challenges, both conceptually and methodologically, to come to comprehensive assessments of media influences on citizens’ political cognitions, attitudes, or behaviors. Research needs to be clearer as to which conceptualization of media is followed and how such conceptualization may interact with other dimensions of media attributes. Measurement of media use and reception needs to take into account the increasing complexities of how citizens encounter political information, and it requires alignment with the conceptualization of media. Political media effect theories should not continue developing side by side, but should attempt to find a place in a more comprehensive model and take into account how they relate to and possibly interact with other approaches. In sum, the field of political media effects, while vast and covering a range of aspects, would do well to consider its role and purpose in increasingly complex media environments and, accordingly, provide more integrative perspectives, conceptually, methodologically, and theoretically.

Article

Media-Effects Experiments in Political Decision Making  

Bryan Gervais

Recognizing its causal power, contemporary scholars of media effects commonly leverage experimental methodology. For most of the 20th century, however, political scientists and communication scholars relied on observational data, particularly after the development of scientific survey methodology around the mid-point of the century. As the millennium approached, Iyengar and Kinder’s seminal News That Matters experiments ushered in an era of renewed interest in experimental methods. Political communication scholars have been particularly reliant on experiments, due to their advantages over observational studies in identifying media effects. Although what is meant by “media effects” has not always been clear or undisputed, scholars generally agree that the news media influences mass opinion and behavior through its agenda-setting, framing, and priming powers. Scholars have adopted techniques and practices for gauging the particular effects these powers have, including measuring the mediating role of affect (or emotion). Although experiments provide researchers with causal leverage, political communication scholars must consider challenges endemic to media-effects studies, including problems related to selective exposure. Various efforts to determine if selective exposure occurs and if it has consequences have come to different conclusions. The origin of conflicting conclusions can be traced back to the different methodological choices scholars have made. Achieving experimental realism has been a particularly difficult challenge for selective exposure experiments. Nonetheless, there are steps media-effects scholars can take to bolster causal arguments in an era of high media choice. While the advent of social media has brought new challenges for media-effects experimentalists, there are new opportunities in the form of objective measures of media exposure and effects.