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.
Stephen N. Goggin, Stephanie A. Nail, and Alexander G. Theodoridis
George Washington warned in his farewell address that “the spirit of party ... is inseparable from our nature, having its root in the strongest passions of the human mind.” Indeed, while many factors influence how citizens judge, reason, and make decisions about politics, parties and partisanship play an extraordinarily central role in political cognition. Party and partisanship color how individuals understand the political world in two broad ways. Partisan stereotypes, or how party labels call to mind a host of attributes about people and constituent groups, play an important role in cognition. Second, perhaps even more pronounced in a hyperpolarized political world, is the way in which party influences cognition through partisan identity, or one’s own attachment (or lack thereof) to one of the parties. This connects a party and co-partisans with one’s own self-concept and facilitates an us-versus-them mentality when making political judgments and decisions. Both cognitive pathways are often simultaneously operating and interacting with each other. While we can think about the role of party in terms of stereotypes or identities, the impact of partisanship on actual cognition often involves both, and it can have varied implications for the quality of political decision making. Because partisanship is central to the political world, particularly in democracies, it has been the subject of a variety of lines of inquiry attempting to explain its impact on voters’ decisions.
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.
Referendums are frequently used to ratify European Union (EU)–related propositions. Since 1972 there have been in total 46 EU-related referendums, excluding third-country referendums on EU-related matters. While referendums are constitutionally mandated in some countries in order to ratify new treaties, other referendums are held for either normative or for political reasons. Referendums deal with topics that are less familiar to voters, where key issues typically do not map onto domestic political cleavages. This means that we should expect that campaigns and the information they provide about the issues and the positions of political actors might matter more in framing issues than in first-order national elections. While there is by no means a scholarly consensus, recent research has shown, for instance, that an issue that dominates media coverage can impact how voters evaluate a proposition. Finally, what do we know about voter behavior? While referendums on EU affairs have been criticized as being decided by “second-order” factors such as government popularity, there is evidence that when a proposition matters for voters, voting behavior is more dominated by issue-voting. Recent research has drawn on advances in cognitive psychology to investigate the impact of attitude strength and personality characteristics for voter behavior.
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.
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.