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Political information processing How do people make sense of the political world?

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1 Political information processing How do people make sense of the political world?

2 Low levels of political knowledge Americans have habitually exhibited low levels of political knowledge Some scholars argue that this is not necessarily as big a problem as it seems at first blush The reasons for low levels of knowledge are more difficult to pinpoint

3 The concern (Ilya Somin) “An inform(ed) electorate is a prerequisite for democracy” Widespread public ignorance –“prevents democratic government from reflecting the will of the people in any meaningful sense, undercutting the... Defense of democracy as a government that is representative of the voluntary decisions of the populace.”

4 Also, “ignorance potentially opens the door for elite manipulation of the public and gross policy errors caused by politicians’ need to appeal to an ignorant electorate in order to win.”

5 To act rationally, people must be aware of an issue, have a position on it, and know the positions of the candidates on the issues –From The American Voter They also must have an idea what position best forwards their own interests –Somin

6 “the fact that a majority of American voters with an opinion on the issue believe that the Federal government is too large and powerful while simultaneously favoring increased spending in almost every major area of Federal involvement is a clear case of ignorance of tradeoffs that falls below the threshold of minimally necessary knowledge.” (Somin)

7 “voters are ignorant not just about specific policy issues, but about the basic structure of government and how it operates” “most voters lack an ‘ideological’ view of politics capable of integrating multiple issues into a single analytical framework derived from a few basic principles”

8 “the level of political knowledge in the American electorate has increased only very slightly, if at all, since the beginning of mass survey research in the late 1930s”

9 What is involved in thinking? A series of steps link the external world to our internal ‘consciousness’ The vast majority of information available in the outside world is either not noticed at all or is ignored/disregarded We act as “cognitive misers,” minimizing the amount of effort expended on our myriad mental tasks

10 How is new information ‘learned’? Perception –Register –Pattern recognition Salience evaluation –Importance determination –Categorization Meaning evaluation –Comparison with existing schema Integration –Memory trace construction

11 How is memory used? New information triggers memory search –Working memory analysis calls up memory traces Action/decision needs trigger memory search –LTM and Working memory info are combined to provide guidance needed for action Decision rules applied to information in working memory –Action guide applied to motor responses

12 Major factors Limited capacity –Perceptual buffer –Short-term memory

13 Learning from the news “The public is bombarded daily with more news than it can handle.” News is not set up to pass along policy information –Most news touted as significant but much is trivial Constant crisis atmosphere numbs excitement and produces boredom –Short, tightly packed segments Lots of specific information –Limited context –Confusing presentation –Simple presentation –Conflictual presentation with no guidance for audience

14 Learning from news However, news, along with other media content, have a significant impact in giving a general view of the political world to audiences Political socialization—development of orientations that allow the individual to act as a citizen—strongly affected by media –System support, even if questioning of individual office holders



17 Major influences Limited effort –“Satisficing” –Winnowing of the information flow Monitoring behavior –External information search is rare

18 Affect referral Neither compensatory nor noncompensatory Choose according to overall emotional attachment –Candidate image

19 Habitual Vote according to prior behavior without evaluating options –Yellow Dog Democrats

20 Shortcuts Base evaluations on personal experience Base on political party Base on candidates’ past records Base on single issues Base on informed friends/acquaintances

21 Political attitudes Relatively stable, even in the face of disconfirming evidence Developed relatively early in life, influence new information acceptance and interpretation –Family and friends –School –Media

22 Schema-based learning New information is evaluated according to the existing belief structure Contradictory information or information that cannot be integrated into existing beliefs often is not encoded into memory

23 Learning processes (Graber) Blending new and old information Schemas –Better informed have large arrays of schemas that allow them to assimilate new information faster and deeper than those who are less well informed. Knowledge Gap –Often seen as the reason for the strong relationship between education and political knowledge


25 Biases Existing schema impact: –Exposure to information –Attention to information –Processing of information Memory trace Associated concepts –Retrieval of information

26 Schema-based bias in reception Members of the public have views of political parties that tend to set up a schema for viewing candidates for that party. This is especially true for partisans. –“(Audience members) read or view the news in that vein, picking up bits of information that fit while rejecting, ignoring, or reinterpreting those that do not fit.” When events or people are not well known by the audience, they will tend to accept the new information carried in the media.

27 Biases in information processing Evaluate the probability of something based on its similarity to a class Candidate with certain demographic attributes are assumed to be like a ‘similar’ group of people –Stereotyping –Priming –Difficulty for non-traditional candidates

28 Management of cognitive resources Most scholars argue that some sort of master control mechanism exists –Operating system Conflicts in demands are constant, and must be managed –How do we know what to focus on? The means by which management occurs is the allocation of attention

29 Signal variance and attention Attention is allocated based on a number of rules –Much more research is needed in this area

30 Certain stimuli draw attention Indicators of personal relevance –Loud party syndrome (your name) Surprising/unusual stimuli –Physical deviance from the norm Loudness, color, movement –Unexpected ideas, contrasts, etc. (humor) Personal interest –Varies widely among individuals


32 Certain stimuli draw attention Perceived importance

33 Cognitive information processing A number of steps occur in a relatively ordered manner Some processes may be occurring simultaneously –There is always something going on

34 A flow diagram of the memory system. Shiffrin & Atkinson, 1969 Reprinted from Miller (1997).

35 The first step Some sort of environmental data must be picked up by the sense organs Once picked up, sensory buffers “hold” the info from the sense organs that has been turned into electrical signals If there is some sort of pattern recognized that has enough priority to move forward, the information is brought into working memory

36 Randy Garcia


38 200710

39 Second step Working memory is where the significance of patterns is determined –Is the pattern mundane/unimportant? –Can it be accommodated by existing schema? –Does it add new information to the schema or does it contradict the existing schema? If so, is it worth integrating into Long Term Memory (LTM)?

40 Working memory Very limited capacity: [7 +/- 2] –Strategies for enhancing capacity: Chunking Therefore, its “up or out” for ideas Identifies appropriate existing content (‘schema’) for interpretation of new content –Or else master control does while working memory ‘rehearses’ the new material Constructs memory traces for later recall

41 A flow diagram of the memory system. Shiffrin & Atkinson, 1969 Reprinted from Miller (1997).

42 Biases Availability heuristic The ease with which things come to mind influences the use of those things in evaluations –Increases their importance in decision-making –Media coverage –Advertising –Personal history –Social group

43 Long term memory Once stored in LTM, “memories” last for long periods of time –Often said to last a lifetime Organization schemes are thought to be ‘hierarchical’ –Specific instances filed under general concepts, etc. Schema –Schema are at least somewhat idiosyncratic

44 Levels of political knowledge Most scholars see the levels of political knowledge as quite low. –Factual knowledge quite low –However, several scholars, including Graber, say that factual knowledge is not necessary for the voter to make an appropriate choice “Myth of the omnicompetent citizen” “Spinach news”







51 So What? Those low in political knowledge tend also to opt out of voting, several other political behaviors Lack of knowledge leads to cognitive shortcuts that may be erroneous


53 Pew Research

54 Political decision-making Determining who to vote for

55 How do people approach decision-making? Cognitive misers Most behavior is habitual –Limited capacity –Limited interest –Limited attention –Limited information storage Broad-based cues (political party) –Limited effort expended on decisions –Impact of affect

56 Modeling decision-making Attribute-evaluation matrix A number of strategies can be modeled with the matrix –Research on public opinion can help campaign planners to determine matrix, develop strategy

57 Evaluative dimensions BushKerry Foreign policy Taxes Flag burning Tobacco Personality

58 Performance BushKerry Foreign policy64 Taxes73 Flag burning26 Tobacco57 Personality24

59 How do citizens use the matrix? Compensatory and non-compensatory strategies Compensatory means that a low score on one attribute is weighed against a high score on another. –Becomes a complicated and demanding task to identify attributes and score each of the candidates on each attribute

60 Compensatory strategies Used by more sophisticated and interested citizens Provide a number of points of entry for political strategists Are relatively rare

61 Noncompensatory strategies Low performance on one or two criteria cannot be weighed against performance elsewhere Once the candidate has failed on some criterion, she is no longer in the running

62 Noncompensatory strategies Rate all candidates on one criterion of over- riding importance and: –A. select the one with the highest score on that criterion Single-issue voting –B. eliminate all those that do not reach a minimum level on that attribute Then follow up with additional decision-making criteria for those that survived first hurdle

63 Noncompensatory strategies Common Easier than compensatory Lead to certain promotional strategies –Attempt to get voters to apply a criterion that you know is generally favorable to your candidate Republicans—foreign policy, taxes Democrats—pocketbook issues

64 Noncompensatory strategies Find “hot button” issues and focus campaign on them –Consistently portray candidate in a positive light on issue, opponent in a negative light


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