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Political Agenda Setting and the Mass Media  

Stefaan Walgrave and Peter Van Aelst

Recently, the number of studies examining whether media coverage has an effect on the political agenda has been growing strongly. Most studies found that preceding media coverage does exert an effect on the subsequent attention for issues by political actors. These effects are contingent, though, they depend on the type of issue and the type of political actor one is dealing with. Most extant work has drawn on aggregate time-series designs, and the field is as good as fully non-comparative. To further develop our knowledge about how and why the mass media exert influence on the political agenda, three ways forward are suggested. First, we need better theory about why political actors would adopt media issues and start devoting attention to them. The core of such a theory should be the notion of the applicability of information encapsulated in the media coverage to the goals and the task at hand of the political actors. Media information has a number of features that make it very attractive for political actors to use—it is often negative, for instance. Second, we plead for a disaggregation of the level of analysis from the institutional level (e.g., parliament) or the collective actor level (e.g., party) to the individual level (e.g., members of parliament). Since individuals process media information, and since the goals and tasks of individuals that trigger the applicability mechanism are diverse, the best way to move forward is to tackle the agenda setting puzzle at the individual level. This implies surveying individual elites or, even better, implementing experimental designs to individual elite actors. Third, the field is in dire need of comparative work comparing how political actors respond to media coverage across countries or political systems.


Bounded Rationality in Public Administration  

JoBeth Shafran, Bryan D. Jones, and Connor Dye

Bounded rationality is the notion that while humans want to be fully rational beings and weigh the costs and benefits when making a decision, they cannot do so due to cognitive and emotional limitations. The role of human nature in the study and design of organizations can be examined through three general approaches that are explained using metaphors: organization as machine, organization as hierarchy, and organization as canal. The organization-as-machine approach ignores the principles of bounded rationality by assuming the organizational members perform straightforward cost–benefit responses to the incentives put forward by the operators. Later developments in organizational scholarship incorporate elements of bounded rationality and allowed researchers to link human cognitive capacities to the basic organizational features, giving us two new conceptions of organization: organization as hierarchy and organization as canal. Organization as hierarchy focuses on the organization’s use of subunits to create divisions of labor to expand the capacity to process information and problem-solve. Organization as canal recognizes that the weaknesses of human cognition are still channeled into the organizational structure, making it difficult for organizations to update their preferences and assumptions as they receive new information. These principles of bounded rationality in organizational theory can be applied to policy-making institutions. Hierarchical organizations delegate information processing to the subunits, allowing them to attend to the various policy environments and process incoming information. While the collective organization attends to many issues at once, the rules and procedures that are present within the organization and the cognitive limits of decision makers, prevent proportional information processing. Political institutions are unable to respond efficiently to changes in the environment. Thus, organizational adjustment to the environment is characterized as disjointed and episodic as opposed to smooth and incremental. Punctuated equilibrium theory applies these tenets of bounded rationality to a theory of policy change. Congress has been a vehicle for studying bounded rationality in organizations and theories of policy change, as it is a formal institution with bureaucratic elements and is subject to the constraints faced by any formal organization.


Associative Memory and Political Decision Making  

Beth Vonnahme

Citizens are continuously inundated with political information. How do citizens process that information for use in decision-making? Political psychologists have generally thought of information processing as proceeding through a series of stages: (1) exposure and attention; (2) comprehension; (3) encoding, interpretation, and elaboration; (4) organization and storage in memory; and (5) retrieval. This processing of information relies heavily on two key structures: working memory and long-term memory. Working memory actively processes incoming information whereas long-term memory is the storage structure of the brain. The most widely accepted organizational scheme for long-term memory is the associative network model. In this model, information stored in long-term memory is organized as a series of connected nodes. Each node in the network represents a concept with links connecting the various concepts. The links between nodes represent beliefs about the connection between concepts. These links facilitate retrieval of information through a process known as spreading activation. Spreading activation moves information from long-term memory to working memory. When cued nodes are retrieved from memory, they activate linked nodes thereby weakly activating further nodes and so forth. Repeatedly activated nodes are the most likely to be retrieved from long-term memory for use in political decision-making. The concept of an associative network model of memory has informed a variety of research avenues, but several areas of inquiry remain underdeveloped. Specifically, many researchers rely on an associative network model of memory without questioning the assumptions and implications of the model. Doing so might further inform our understanding of information processing in the political arena. Further, voters are continuously flooded with political and non-political information; thus, exploring the role that the larger information environment can play in information processing is likely to be a fruitful path for future inquiry. Finally, little attention has been devoted to the various ways a digital information environment alters the way citizens process political information. In particular, the instantaneous and social nature of digital information may short-circuit information processing.


Computational Models of Political Decision Making  

Sung-youn Kim

A growing body of research uses computational models to study political decision making and behavior such as voter turnout, vote choice, party competition, social networks, and cooperation in social dilemmas. Advances in the computational modeling of political decision making are closely related to the idea of bounded rationality. In effect, models of full rationality can usually be analyzed by hand, but models of bounded rationality are complex and require computer-assisted analysis. Most computational models used in the literature are agent based, that is, they specify how decisions are made by autonomous, interacting computational objects called “agents.” However, an important distinction can be made between two classes of models based on the approaches they take: behavioral and information processing. Behavioral models specify relatively simple behavioral rules to relax the standard rationality assumption and investigate the system-level consequences of these rules in conjunction with deductive, game-theoretic analysis. In contrast, information-processing models specify the underlying information processes of decision making—the way political actors receive, store, retrieve, and use information to make judgment and choice—within the structural constraints on human cognition, and examine whether and how these processes produce the observed behavior in question at the individual or aggregate level. Compared to behavioral models, information-processing computational models are relatively rare, new to political scientists, and underexplored. However, focusing on the underlying mental processes of decision making that must occur within the structural constraints on human cognition, they have the potential to provide a more general, psychologically realistic account for political decision making and behavior.


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.


Voter Information Processing and Political Decision Making  

Alessandro Nai

Contemporary political information processing and the subsequent decision making mechanisms are suboptimal. Average voters usually have but vague notions of politics and cannot be said to be motivated to invest considerable amount of times to make up their minds about political affairs; furthermore, political information is not only complex and virtually infinite but also often explicitly designed to deceive and persuade by triggering unconscious mechanisms in those exposed to it. In this context, how can voters sample, process, and transform the political information they receive into reliable political choices? Two broad set of dynamics are at play. On the one hand, individual differences determine how information is accessed and processed: different personality traits set incentives (and hurdles) for information processing, the availability of information heuristics and the motivation to treat complex information determine the preference between easy and good decisions, and partisan preferences establish boundaries for information processing and selective exposure. On the other hand, and beyond these individual differences, the content of political information available to citizens drives decision making: the alleged “declining quality” of news information poses threats for comprehensive and systematic reasoning; excessive negativity in electoral campaigns drives cynicism (but also attention); and the use of emotional appeals increases information processing (anxiety), decreases interest and attention (rage), and strengthens the reliance on individual predispositions (enthusiasm). At the other end of the decisional process, the quality of the choices made (Was the decision supported by “ambivalent” opinions? And to what extent was the decision “correct”?) is equally hard to assess, and fundamental normative questions come into play.


Motivated Reasoning and Political Decision Making  

Toby Bolsen and Risa Palm

Motivated reasoning is a pervasive force in politics. The concept of motivated reasoning was developed and elaborated in both psychology and economics as a way of understanding the way in which people learn and respond to information, and as a mechanism to explain behavior that is seen as less than optimal. It has been important in political science since the early 2000s. Political scientists initially connected the distinct constructs of motivated reasoning with online information processing, given the affective, unconscious, and automatic bases of both processes, but they later distinguished cognitive effort and processing style from underlying goals or motivation. Most research on motivated reasoning in political science focuses on two primary motivations: accuracy and directional goals. An accuracy motivation is defined by reasoning that seeks to arrive at a conclusion that is free from error given the information at hand, whereas a directional goal is defined by a desire to protect one’s existing beliefs or identities. Much of the early research on motivated reasoning in political science painted citizens as incapable of evaluating information objectively, and, to make matters worse, citizens’ processing biases appeared to increase with political knowledge, interest, and the strength of existing political beliefs. A second generation of research on motivated reasoning identified individual-level and contextual factors that moderated or eliminated directional biases. Scholars developed a better understanding of how motivations rooted in partisan identity affect information interpretation, evaluation, and decision-making, as well how different information environments can shift the motivations that citizens pursue when they are reasoning about politics. The pursuit of an accuracy motivation in political reasoning is now considered a realistic and attainable standard for evaluating citizen competence in democratic societies that avoids many of the pitfalls of past attempts to define the quality of citizens’ reasoning capacities.


Competitive Framing in Political Decision Making  

Dennis Chong

Framing effects are produced by political communications that emphasize certain characteristics or consequences of an issue or policy to the exclusion of other features. By increasing the accessibility of those characteristics in people’s judgments, individuals can be swayed between supporting and opposing a policy depending on the valence of the highlighted feature. The preference inconsistencies that define framing effects were generated initially in environments in which individuals responded to a singular framing of an issue (i.e., a one-sided frame) at the expense of alternative conceptualizations of the problem. An important question is whether framing effects can be diminished by the competition among ideas that is characteristic of democratic politics. The analysis of competitive framing has focused on the interaction between individual predispositions and processing styles and the combination of messages that individuals receive. The effectiveness of any particular communication strategy will depend on the characteristics of the target audience (specifically its values, knowledge, and processing style), the availability and applicability of the frames employed (i.e., whether they are strong or weak), and the degree to which there is competition and debate over the issues. Research has been based on increasingly realistic experimental designs that attempt to reproduce how people encounter and process communications about politics in natural environments. The competitive context affects how much information people receive as well as how they process that information. In noncompetitive political environments, individuals, especially those who are unmotivated, tend to apply whatever considerations are made accessible by the one-sided messages they receive. In contrast, competing frames tend to stimulate individuals to deliberate on the merits of alternative interpretations. The key difference between competitive framing in a single period versus over time is that when people receive competing messages about political issues over the course of a campaign or debate, their attitudes are affected not only by the content of the messages but also the sequence and timing of communications. The same set of messages will have a different impact depending on the order and combinations in which those messages were received. The most significant implication of these dynamics is that democratic competition—even when the opposing frames are balanced and of equal strength—may reduce or eliminate framing effects only when people receive the opposing frames simultaneously. The magnitude of framing effects at different junctures of a campaign depends on the extent of exposure to frames and the degree to which citizens learn and retain information derived from those frames. Individuals who more efficiently process and store information—the online processors and those with a strong need to evaluate—are less likely to be moved by the latest frame because they are stabilized by the attitudes they have developed in prior phases of the campaign. There are promising hints in over-time studies that longer-term exposure to debate (beyond the short-term campaigns simulated in experiments) could gradually familiarize motivated individuals with both sides of the issue and diminish the subsequent influence of one-sided frames.