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Priming in Political Judgment and Decision Making  

Chadly Stern

How do people make political judgments and decisions? Each day, people are faced with a host of political issues. They also possess a limited amount of cognitive resources and must grapple with topics on which there is not necessarily an objectively correct answer. In turn, people rely on accessible information to facilitate their political judgments and decisions. Information is accessible when it is activated in a person’s mind. The information can either be chronically accessible, such as the political issues that are consistently important to a person, or made accessible through the situation, such as the issues that the media choose to cover in a given time and place. Situational information becomes especially accessible when the context activates available information stored in memory or the information is consistent with a person’s motivations and goals, such as media coverage rendering civil rights more accessible for racial minorities. Priming refers to the usage of accessible information when making judgments and decisions, such as deciding whether to sign a petition or how to vote in an election. In recent years, considerable debate has emerged about the generalizability of findings and current conceptual models of accessibility and priming across people and contexts. As research on accessibility and priming progresses, scholars continue to examine these topics in novel areas (e.g., social media) and push in building nuanced theoretical frameworks that help to explain variability in priming across contexts. Overall, understanding how people use accessible information in political judgments and decisions stands as an important factor in developing a comprehensive picture of political life.


Racial Priming with Implicit and Explicit Messages  

Michael Tesler

An expansive body of research known as racial priming consistently shows that media and campaign content can make racial attitudes more important factors in Americans’ political evaluations. Despite the well-established racial priming findings, though, there are some lingering questions about this line of research that have not been adequately settled by the extant literature. Perhaps the most frequently debated issue involves the effectiveness of implicit and explicit racial appeals. Can explicit appeals that directly invoke race and/or racial stereotypes, for example, effectively activate racial attitudes in white Americans’ political opinions? Or do racial appeals have to be implicit in nature, making only coded references to race in order to prime racially conservative support for political candidates and public policies? Along with this important topic, there are additional questions raised by the existing racial priming research, which include: Who is most susceptible to racial priming? Are political attacks on other minority groups, such as Muslims and Latinos, as potent as the appeals to anti-black stereotypes and resentments upon which the racial priming research is based? How did Obama’s presidency, which both heightened the salience of race in political discourse and increased the importance of racial attitudes in Americans’ partisan preferences, affect the media’s ability to prime race-based considerations in mass political evaluations?


Religious Communication and the Effects of Priming  

Gwyneth McClendon

Despite predictions that urbanization, economic development and globalization would lead to the recession of religion from public life, populations around the world continue to be highly religious. This pattern holds in most parts of the Global South and also in some advanced industrial democracies in the North, including in the United States. In grappling with the influence (or lack thereof) of religion on political life, a growing body of literature pays attention to how clergy–congregant communication might shape listeners’ political attitudes and behaviors. Considerable debate remains as to whether clergy–congregant communication is likely to change political attitudes and behavior, but there is a greater consensus around the idea that exposure to religious communication can at the very least prime (that is, increase the salience of) certain considerations that in turn affect how people evaluate political issues and whether they participate in politics. Religious communication is more likely to exert a persuasive and a priming influence among those already inclined to select into the communication and when the source of the communication is credible. More research is needed on the duration of religious primes and on the effects of religious communication in different political and social contexts around the world.


Emphasis Framing and Political Decision Making  

Thomas E. Nelson

Frames are distilled and coherent representations of complex social and political issues. A frame defines what an issue is about. Emphasis frames give special prominence to one aspect or feature of an issue. An example is the “reverse discrimination” frame for the issue of affirmative action, which emphasizes the potential costs of affirmative action to the superordinate group. Emphasis frames have attracted attention from several disciplines, including political science, sociology, psychology, journalism, and communication, with each contributing theoretical insight and empirical demonstration. Emphasis frames manifest themselves in communicated messages and in the minds of individuals. Emphasis frames often originate in political actors such as social movement organizations, interest groups, and leaders. These actors hope to effect political change by disseminating framed messages that represent the actors’ positions on the issue. News organizations transmit emphasis frames, in whole or in part, in the course of covering an issue. Organizational norms and procedures within the mass media can also shape the frames that ultimately appear to the audience. Research has linked several political outcomes to emphasis frames, not the least of which is the influence that a communication frame has on the frame in the audience’s mind. Frames can influence the interpretations of the issue, judgments about what is most relevant to the issue, and even opinions about the issue. Framing has also been linked to changes in public policy. At the same time, there are a number of individual and contextual factors that can govern how strong a frame’s impact will be. Frames that harmonize with an individual audience member’s values or schemata might be especially effective, while individuals with strong prior opinions might be less affected by frames. Researchers have proposed different psychological models of how emphasis frames influence audiences. Some have argued that framing overlaps considerably with other communication effects such as agenda-setting or priming. The key argument is that the frame activates specific beliefs, feelings, values, or other components of political judgment and opinion. Other models propose that framing affects the perceived importance, relevance, or applicability of activated considerations. Still other models stress the impact of frames on the attributions audiences make about who or what is responsible the origins of a social problem and its solution. A final category of models includes emotional response as a key mediator of frame effects. Several significant challenges confront emphasis framing researchers. Scholars should seek to better integrate research at different levels of analysis of framing. They must also demonstrate framing’s relevance in the modern communication landscape, along with its distinctiveness from other familiar communication phenomena.


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.


Framing and Political Decision Making: An Overview  

Zoe Oxley

Political communicators have long used framing as a tactic to try to influence the opinions and political decisions of others. Frames capture an essence of a political issue or controversy, typically the essence that best furthers a communicator’s political goals. Framing has also received much attention by scholars; indeed, the framing literature is vast. In the domain of political decision making, one useful distinction is between two types of frames: emphasis frames and equivalence frames. Emphasis frames present an issue by highlighting certain relevant features of the issue while ignoring others. Equivalence frames present an issue or choice in different yet logically equivalent ways. Characterizing the issue of social welfare as a drain on the government budget versus a helping hand for poor people is emphasis framing. Describing the labor force as 95% employed versus 5% unemployed is equivalency framing. These frames differ not only by their content but also by the effects on opinions and judgements that result from frame exposure as well as the psychological processes that account for the effects. For neither emphasis nor equivalence frames, however, are framing effects inevitable. Features of the environment, such as the presence of competing frames, or individual characteristics, such as political predispositions, condition whether exposure to a specific frame will influence the decisions and opinions of the public.


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.


Experimentation in the Study of Religion and Politics  

Paul A. Djupe and Amy Erica Smith

Experiments in religion and politics model a communication system with three elements: who (the sample) is exposed to what (the treatment) and with what potential effect (the outcome). Most experiments in religion and politics focus on one of three types of samples: clergy, the faithful within certain religious groups, or all citizens within a polity. At the core of the experiment is the randomized treatment: an independent variable that the researcher manipulates and randomly assigns to treatment groups that are supposed to be equivalent in all other respects. Certain kinds of treatments tend to be associated with certain kinds of hypothesized outcomes. That is, most experiments in religion and politics involve investigating either (a) how a randomized treatment related to religion affects a political outcome or (b) how a randomized treatment related to politics affects a religious outcome. There are several types of religious treatments that closely mirror the actual insertion of religion into public life: manipulating candidates’ religious affiliations, behavior, and rhetoric; manipulating appeals attributed to religious elites and institutions; priming subjects’ own religious or political beliefs or manipulating other religious attributes of subjects; manipulating the characteristics of other citizens; and manipulating religious institutional cues received by clergy. Experimental methods are everywhere now in the study of religion and politics and provide clear benefits for understanding how religion and politics interact. Perhaps most importantly, the method imposes intellectual rigor, helping scholars pin down theoretically and empirically the precise mechanisms involved in the mutual impact between religion and politics. In addition, experimental control enables scholars to assert more confidently the direction of influence among variables that in the real world plausibly influence each other.