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Strategic Framing and Persuasive Messaging to Influence Climate Change Perceptions and Decisions  

Toby Bolsen and Matthew A. Shapiro

The importance of framing as a concept is reflected by the massive amount of attention it has received from scholars across disciplines. As a communicative process, framing involves making certain considerations salient as a way to simplify or shape the way in which an audience understands a particular problem and its potential solutions. As recently as the early 2000s, social scientists began to examine how strategic frames in a communication affect both individuals’ beliefs about climate change and the actions they are willing to support to mitigate the likely effects. Research on the effects of how strategic frames influence the attitudes, beliefs, and preferences of individuals in this domain primarily builds on insights from framing theory, which explains that an individual’s attitude or preference in any given context depends on the available, accessible, and most applicable (i.e., perceived strongest) considerations. But it is much more than theory: frames related to the effects and potential solutions for climate change have been employed strategically by various actors in an effort to shape public opinion and public policy. Perceptions of scientific consensus on climate change are thought to play an important role in determining support for policy actions. Consequently, strategic actors promote a particular agenda by accentuating the inherent uncertainty of climate science, thus casting doubt on the scientific consensus. This has contributed to partisan polarization on climate change and the rise of protective forms of information processing and reasoning in this domain. Strategic messages and frames that resonate with particular subgroups have no effect, or may even backfire, on other segments of the population. Additionally, as individuals who possess different partisan identities become more knowledgeable and numerate, they become increasingly likely to accept information and messages that bolster their existing group loyalties and to reject communications that challenge those identities. Science communicators are thus presented with a considerable barrier to building consensus among the public for action on climate change. In response, scholars have begun to identify strategies and approaches for addressing audiences with the kinds of messages that are most likely to resonate with individuals possessing a diverse range of values and political identities. Further research must identify ways to overcome partisan motivated reasoning on climate change and the persistent and deleterious effects that have resulted from the politicization of climate science.

Article

Documentary and Edutainment Portrayals of Climate Change and Their Societal Impacts  

Kathryn E. Cooper and Erik C. Nisbet

As climate change becomes an increasingly serious problem, mass media are tasked with educating the public. Documentary films and television shows (also called “edutainment”) have been used for decades to communicate about the natural world so that the public may hopefully become informed about science in a simplified, easy-to-understand way. Although producers ostensibly create environmental documentaries in order to inform and/or advocate, theory development and empirical research is limited and insufficient in explaining how this genre influences audiences and why this genre may or may not be an effective means of science communication. Environmental documentaries have the potential to deeply impact audiences because these films promote learning while viewers are entertained, because engagement with the documentary narrative (story) can overcome biases such as politically driven motivated reasoning (conforming new evidence to existing beliefs) and can leverage biases such as the tendency to rely on affect (emotions) when estimating risks. Documentary storytelling can also enhance learning by connecting the causes and consequences of climate change in a sequential narrative. Climate change is a highly contentious political issue, which is reflected in the diversity of viewpoints found in climate change documentaries despite scientific consensus about the issue. While many of these films serve an educational purpose, others are geared toward advocacy. These advocacy programs aim to mobilize value-congruent audiences to engage in personal and collective action and/or to demand policy change. However, people prefer messages that align with their preexisting values, and so the belief disparity between climate change advocates and deniers grows with increasing media exposure as audiences with different beliefs watch and receive climate change messages in very different ways. Filmmakers and scientists must focus future efforts on creating visually engaging narratives within documentaries to promote both education and advocacy to diverse audiences.

Article

Communicating About Clean Energy and Efficiency Policies  

Matthew A. Shapiro, Toby Bolsen, and Anna McCaghren Fleming

Public opinion plays a central role in determining the feasibility of efforts to transform energy systems in the coming years, yet scholarship on communication effects and public opinion about clean energy and energy efficiency seems to have expanded only relatively recently. There is a growing body of work that explores how targeted and strategically framed messages affect individuals’ beliefs and motivations to act on matters affecting household energy choices as well as energy policies. One must attend particularly to the principal communication-based factors that shape the public’s understanding of clean energy sources and promote efficiencies in energy use. To better understand the communication vehicles for improving both household energy efficiency and conservation, two research foci are most relevant: (1) field experiments that primarily assess how household energy consumption shifts after receiving energy consumption reports and (2) surveys/laboratory experiments that focus on the nuances of energy-related communications, paying particular attention to the role of politics and ideology. This bimodal classification of clean energy and efficiency communication research genres is not exhaustive but can be synthesized into two major contributions. First, providing households with information about specific benefits that would result from a greater reliance on clean energy may increase support for its development and move individuals toward energy efficiency outcomes; however, exposure to counter-messages that emphasize costs associated with clean energy and the associated policies can negate the effects of pro-clean energy messages. Second, there is still no reprieve from the politicization of energy, and thus the role of partisanship and motivated reasoning must be accounted for when assessing how individuals modify their decision-making processes regarding energy efficiency.

Article

Attributing Inferred Causes and Explanations to Behavior  

Gordon B. Moskowitz, Irmak Olcaysoy Okten, and Alexandra Sackett

Behavior is a reflection of the intentions, attitudes, goals, beliefs, and desires of a person. These intra-individual factors are coordinated with what opportunities the situation affords and the perceived constraints placed on the person by their context and the norms of the culture they are in. Further, the intentions, attitudes, goals, beliefs, and desires of a person are often not known to them in any given moment, and because they reside within the mind of that person they are almost always not known to the people who are perceiving that person. To know anything about other people we must observe and identify/classify their behavior and then attribute to the observed behavior inferences and judgments about the internal states of that person serving as the motivating force behind their behavior. This entry explores this process of attribution. Heider described attribution as the process that determines “how one person thinks and feels about another person, how he perceives him and what he does to him, what he expects him to do or think, how he reacts to the actions of the other.” The entry explores the rules that people follow in order to make sense of behavior, and the rational versus non-rational nature of the procedure. Even when highly motivated to think rationally, this process can be biased, and flaws can appear in the attribution process, such as from chronic differences among perceivers due to culture, experience, or personality. How the process would unfold if accurate and purely rational is contrasted with how it unfolds when biased. How we feel, and how we choose to act, are derived from how we make sense of the world. Thus, attribution processes are foundational for understanding how we feel, for establishing expectations, and planning how to act in turn.

Article

Personal Experience, Extreme Weather Events, and Perceptions of Climate Change  

Christopher P. Borick and Barry G. Rabe

The factors that determine individual perceptions of climate change have been a focus of social science research for many years. An array of studies have found that individual-level characteristics, such as partisan affiliation, ideological beliefs, educational attainment, and race, affect one’s views on the existence of global warming, as well as the levels of concern regarding this matter. But in addition to the individual-level attributes that have been shown to affect perceptions of climate change, a growing body of literature has found that individual experiences with weather can shape a variety of views and beliefs that individuals maintain regarding climate change. These studies indicate that direct experiences with extreme weather events and abnormal seasonal temperature and precipitation levels can affect the likelihood that an individual will perceive global warming to be occurring, and in some cases their policy preferences for addressing the problem. The emerging literature on this relationship indicates that individuals are more likely to express skepticism regarding the existence of global warming when experiencing below average temperatures or above average snowfall in the period preceding an interview on their views. Conversely, higher temperatures and various extreme weather events can elevate acceptance of global warming’s existence. A number of studies also find that individuals are more likely to report weather conditions such as drought and extreme heat affected their acceptance of global warming when such conditions were occurring in their region. For example, the severe drought that has encompassed much of the western United States between 2005 and 2016 has increasingly been cited by residents of the region as the primary reason for their belief that climate change is occurring. What remains unclear at this point is whether the weather conditions are actually changing opinions regarding climate change or if the preexisting opinions are causing individuals to see the weather events in a manner consistent with those opinions. Notably, the relationship between weather experiences and beliefs regarding climate change appear to be multidirectional in nature. Numerous studies have found that not only do weather experiences shape the views of individuals regarding global warming, but also individuals’ views on the existence of global warming can affect their perceptions of the weather that they have experienced. In particular, recent research has shown that individuals who are skeptical about the existence of global warming are less likely to report the weather recorded in their area accurately than individuals who believe global warming is happening.

Article

Partisanship and Political Cognition  

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.

Article

Strategies for Countering False Information and Beliefs about Climate Change  

R. Kelly Garrett

Misperceptions about climate change are widespread, and efforts to correct them must be grounded in an understanding of the factors, both individual and social, that contribute to them. These factors can be organized into four broad categories: motivated reasoning, non-motivated information processing biases, social dynamics, and the information environment. Each type of factor is associated with a host of related strategies for countering false information and beliefs. Motivated biases can be reduced with affirmations, by attempting to depoliticize the issue, and via an evidentiary “tipping point.” Other cognitive biases highlight the importance of clarity, simplicity, and repetition. When correcting errors that contain an inaccurate causal explanation, it is also important to provide an alternative account of the event in question. Message presentation techniques can also facilitate updating beliefs. Beliefs have an important social dimension. Attending to these factors shows the importance of strategies that include: ensuring that lay people consistently have the tools that help them evaluate experts; promoting confidence among those who hold accurate beliefs; facilitating diverse, unsegregated social networks; and providing corrections from unexpected sources. Finally, the prevalence of misinformation in the information environment is highly problematic. Strategies that news organizations can employ include avoiding false balance, adjudicating among contradictory claims, and encouraging accuracy on the part of political elites via fact checking. New technologies may also prove an important tool: search engines that give preferential treatment to accurate information and automated recommendations of accurate information following exposure to inaccuracies both have the potential to change how individuals learn about climate change.

Article

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.

Article

Public Knowledge, Scientific Literacy, Numeracy, and Perceptions of Climate Change  

Jaime Gilden and Ellen Peters

It is a widely accepted scientific fact that our climate is changing and that this change is caused by human activity. Despite the scientific consensus, many individuals in the United States fail to grasp the extent of the consensus and continue to deny both the existence and cause of climate change; the proportion of the population holding these beliefs has been stable in recent history. Most of the American public also believe they know a lot about climate change although knowledge tests do not always reflect their positive perceptions. There are two frequent hypotheses about public knowledge and climate change beliefs: (a) providing the public with more climate science information, thus making them more knowledgeable, will bring the beliefs of the public closer to those of climate scientists and (b) individuals with greater cognitive ability (e.g., scientific literacy or numeracy) will have climate change beliefs more like those of experts. However, data do not always support this proposed link between knowledge, ability, and beliefs. A better predictor of beliefs in the United States is political identity. For example, compared to liberals, conservatives consistently perceive less risk from climate change and, perhaps as a result, are less likely to hold scientifically accurate climate change beliefs, regardless of their cognitive abilities. And greater knowledge and ability, rather than being related to more accurate climate change beliefs, tend to relate to increased polarization across political identities, such that the difference in beliefs between conservatives and liberals with high cognitive ability is greater than the difference in beliefs between conservatives and liberals with low cognitive ability.

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

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.

Article

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.

Article

Referendums in the European Union  

Derek Beach

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.