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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

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

Political Attitudes and Behaviors of LGBT People in the United States  

Patrick Miller

Despite the prominence of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) Americans and debates over LGBT rights in modern American politics, a substantial academic literature that examines their political attitudes has yet to develop. Prominent academic surveys have only relatively recently begun to ask respondent sexual orientation, though even the highest quality surveys that rely on random national samples still contain few LGBT respondents given their small share of the population. Further, questions about respondent gender identity are still largely absent in both academic and commercial surveys. As a result, systematic and deep knowledge about the contours of LGBT political attitudes and how they differ from those of non-LGBT Americans is understandably shallow. However, existing surveys can provide a descriptive overview of the American LGBT community and its politics. Demographically, those who identify as gay, lesbian, or bisexual in surveys as of the mid- to late 2010s tend to be younger, disproportionately female, less religiously committed, less likely to be white, and somewhat lower income and more highly educated than those who identify as heterosexual. Given how these demographic tilts map onto modern political divides, it should not be a surprise that LGBT Americans skew more liberal and Democratic than others in their political orientations. When differences emerge between LGBT and non-LGBT Americans in their issue attitudes, LGBT respondents in surveys consistently tend toward more liberal-leaning opinions. However, this leftward tilt does not always place LGBT persons on the liberal side of issues on average, nor does it mean that LGBT and non-LGBT survey respondents are necessarily in opposition in the aggregate as oftentimes the difference between them is their degree of collective liberalism. Thus, the nature of these intergroup differences depends on the issue or set of issues under examination. Existing data and research do have certain limitations that future research may improve upon. Given that most data on LGBT political attitudes comes from general population surveys of which LGBT respondents are only a small part, most current data do not strongly lend themselves to deeper analysis of subgroups within the LGBT community. Surveys specifically of LGBT people suggest important differences between gay men, lesbians, and bisexuals in how they view their identities as LGBT people and how they perceive how LGBT people fit into modern society, so future research may gather the data necessary to explore the consequences of these differences in political attitudes in greater depth. Also, there is substantial room for future research to explore the sources of LGBT political distinctiveness, and to what extent that distinctiveness stems from demographics, socialization, lived experience, psychology, or other factors.

Article

Ambivalence in Political Decision Making  

Dane Warner and Jason Gainous

Behavioral research largely treats attitudinal ambivalence as a component of attitude strength. Specifically, attitudinal ambivalence exists when someone simultaneously possesses positive and negative evaluations of a single attitude object. Ambivalent individuals do not have a single “true” attitude about political issues but rather a store of multiple and sometimes conflicting attitudes that they might draw upon at any given time when making a decision. Research has suggested that such ambivalence is quite common when it comes to political attitudes. Thus, understanding the measurement of ambivalence, the sources of ambivalence, and the consequences of ambivalence is critical to understanding political decision making. Ambivalence measures largely fall within one of two types: Meta-attitudinal measures where individuals assess their own ambivalence and operative measures where researchers construct indicators that assess ambivalence without individuals’ cognizance that it is being measured. Most research suggests that operative measures perform better. Research generally assumes that the causes of ambivalence are rooted in individual differences in attitude strength that may result from a host of individual or combined sources. The most common sources of ambivalence researchers focus on are value conflict, differences in political knowledge, Context/Political Environment, and Cross-Cutting Information/Conflicting Networks/Groups. Finally, some of the most prevalent consequences of ambivalence are an increase in susceptibility to influence, an effect on the rate of political participation, and increased variance in vote choice. It is here, in the consequences of ambivalence, where the most direct connection to political decision making is evident. In a democratic society, the decision centered on for whom one votes, is perhaps, the quintessential political decision.

Article

Outcomes of Political Decision Making  

Marcus M. Weymiller and Christopher W. Larimer

“Decision outcomes” refers to mass political behavior as well as decisions by elites in the policy arena. Such outcomes are naturally the product of the decision-making process, a process that has been informed considerably by research in areas outside of political science. Political and policy processes are less defined by rational responses to incoming information than by pre-existing cognitive biases favoring narratives, stories, and symbols. Thus, to accurately understand decision outcomes requires an interdisciplinary approach, and, indeed, the discipline of political science has increasingly incorporated insights from psychology, social psychology, sociology, behavioral economics, and other social and natural sciences. Decision outcomes may reflect the true preferences of decision-makers, but behavior and outcomes have also been shown to change dramatically depending on who knows (or will know) the decision. Considering decision outcomes as the dependent variable, several factors have been identified that consistently and significantly shape outcomes in the political and policy worlds. Political outcomes, such as voting (by citizens and elites), are often explained by focusing on party ID or partisanship, and for good reason, but there are also instances in which decision outcomes are better encapsulated by more localized factors or influences. Policy outcomes, on the other hand, are less easily defined or predicted. Emotional testimonies and random fluctuations affect whether an issue is acted upon by a legislative body. Attention to social context and a concern for fairness is a primary driver of decision outcomes in social situations. In particular, leader–follower dynamics and group outcomes are significantly affected by the process in which decisions are made.

Article

Direct Democracy and Political Decision Making  

Shaun Bowler, Reagan Dobbs, and Stephen Nicholson

Direct democracy in the United States is the process whereby voters decide the fate of laws, through either an initiative or a referendum. Initiatives allow voters to approve or reject a policy proposal, whereas referendums permit voters to decide the fate of laws passed by the legislature. Although some high-profile ballot measures, especially those related to ‘moral’ issues, may induce people to vote, most ballot measures are unfamiliar to voters and so have a limited effect on participation. Rather than mobilizing voters, the more choice confronting voters faced with ballot measures is whether to “roll-off” or abstain from voting on them. The subsequent decision, how to vote, is intimately related to the decision over whether to vote and is largely motivated by the same factors. In deciding whether and how to vote, voters must know what a ballot measure is about, discern the political motivation underlying it, and match that information to their political predispositions to cast a Yes or No vote; otherwise they abstain. The more voters know about a given proposition, the more likely it is that they will vote and, furthermore, that the vote they do cast will reflect their underlying political values. In contrast both to the claims made by many critics of direct democracy and, also, some current studies in political science, votes in direct democracy are often underpinned by substantive, policy-based considerations. Voters are thus capable of meaningfully participating in the direct democracy process.

Article

The Political Effects of Religious Cues  

Aubrey Westfall and Özge Çelik Russell

Religion is a central and comprehensive identity for billions of people all over the world. Politicians and other political actors recognize the vitality of religion and use it for political purposes, deliberately signaling religion, religiosity, or religious values and connecting them to political outcomes or behaviors in an effort to influence the political preferences of religious practitioners. The most efficient way to make the connection between religion and politics is through religious cues. Religious cues create information shortcuts linking religious identity or values with a political candidate or issue. Religious cues are used by political and religious actors in secular and religious contexts and are typically one of two general types: identity cues, which engage an individual’s religious identity and activate an in-group/out-group effect, and linkage cues, which link religious values or beliefs with an issue or candidate. Identity cues are particularly tricky to use in secular contexts because they have been shown to have strong alienating effects on nonreligious people, thereby defeating the intended purpose of the cue sender. For this reason, coded religious language called “implicit cues” is used with greater frequency in political discourse where only the religious cue receiver recognizes the religious cue for what it is. This strategy allows a political candidate to reap the benefits of the cue without risking alienation. While scholars have made substantial progress in using experimental methods to disentangle the ways religious cues influence political behavior, there is ample opportunity for more research exploring different types of religious cues and the way they interact with other forms of cues and identities. Furthermore, most of the research on religious cues has focused on Christian cues in the United States, and a more diverse range of religions and contexts should be explored to understand the way religious cues influence political behavior. Researchers should also expand the definition of “religious practitioners” to explore how religious cues influence the growing number of people who do not affiliate with a religion or engage in practices traditionally associated with religiosity but do identify as religious. This would help to expand conceptualization of political behavior to more accurately reflect lived political experiences. Embracing these opportunities will allow the scholarly community to gain a better understanding of the varied political dynamics of religious cueing, which offers insights into how fundamental identities and attitudes are linked, thereby shedding more light on the complex dynamics of political behavior.