MPSA Blog: Top 10 Posts from 2016

MPSA Blog: Top 10 Posts from 2016

Regardless of your research interests, your academic (or Alt-Ac) role, or your aspirations for the new year, there is something on this list of MPSA’s most popular blog posts from 2016 that is sure to pique your interest:

MPSA would especially like to thank regular contributors Newly Paul, Adnan Rasool, Michael A. Smith, and Harry Young for sharing their research, political perspectives, and pedagogical insights with us this calendar year. We look forward to highlighting even more NSF-Funded research, conference presentations, and MPSA member interviews in the coming months. If you’re interested in sharing your work with MPSA’s members and the discipline, we’d love to hear from you.

Best wishes for a safe and productive 2017!

[Im]Polite Conversation: Understanding the Mechanisms for Disengagement from Contentious Political Interactions

This post is one of a series of by MPSA members about their Federally-funded research.  Here, Jaime Settle and Taylor Carlson summarize their NSF-funded research “Understanding the Mechanisms for Disengagement from Contentious Political Interaction.” 

A family friend relayed to me a recent incident at her children’s elementary school. According to her daughter, in the days preceding the state’s primary election, the entire fifth grade was abuzz talking about which candidates they (or, perhaps more accurately, their parents) preferred. The exchanges between the students supporting different candidates became so mean-spirited that the school administration sent a letter to all fifth grade parents asking their children to refrain from provoking or engaging in contentious political conversations on the playground or in the lunchroom.

On first pass, this anecdote may induce a chuckle, but on deeper evaluation, it reflects a disturbing trend in American political culture. Not only are our politicians more polarized, but we are, too. We think our political opponents are physically unattractive, we don’t want to live near them, and we discriminate against them when given the chance.

Much like the school administrators, many Americans consider stopping the conversation to be their preferred solution to avoid engaging in potentially uncomfortable conversations with people with whom they disagree. Since September 2014, our research seeking to understand the dynamics of these interactions has been funded by the NSF in a grant titled “Understanding the Mechanisms for Disengagement from Contentious Political Interaction.” In it, we proposed to use survey and laboratory experiments to study which facets of social interaction about politics are most stress inducing, for which kinds of people, and in which contexts. Our multi-method approach bridges the methodological gap between political science and psychology by relying heavily on a social psychological explanation for political behavior.

What have we learned so far? The topline results from a vignette experiment conducted on a nationally representative sample suggest that fewer than half of respondents expected a hypothetical character to express his or her true political opinions when given the opportunity to do so in an informal conversation among friends and acquaintances who supported a political candidate the character opposes. A sizeable proportion—approximately 10%–expected that the character would publically conform to the opinions of the majority without actually changing his or her true beliefs. This is a behavior we have observed within our experiments, as well. In a study forthcoming in Political Behavior, we find that individuals both expect a hypothetical character to conform to a group’s political opinion and actually do so themselves when given the opportunity. Furthermore, our participants thought that hypothetical characters who discussed politics only with coworkers who disagreed with them were significantly more likely to look for a new job than hypothetical characters who discussed politics with coworkers with a variety of political views.

MPSAblog_Contention and Political Disengagment
Figure 1 from “Political Chameleons: An Exploration of Conformity in Political Discussions,” forthcoming in Political Behavior

We have conducted a series of survey experiments to further explore the conditions under which people are most susceptible to pressures to silence themselves or conform to the opinions of others, and our results suggest that people are sensitive to the knowledge level of the people in the conversation, in addition to the composition of the preferences in the group. It appears that a variety of factors motivate these behaviors, including both concern about being judged negatively by others but also concern about damaging social relationships and making others uncomfortable.

One of the goals of our grant was to deeply understand the mechanisms of engagement and disengagement in political discussion, which we theorized were likely to be self-reinforcing. We are in the middle of analyzing the results from a series of psychophysiological studies in which we measured participants’ heart rates and electrodermal activity when they expected to have, or actually engaged in, political discussions. Our results suggest that some people actually have a stronger physiological response—their heart rate increases and their hands sweat more—at the mere thought of having a political conversation. For these people, political interactions are physically–not just psychologically–uncomfortable, perhaps contributing to their decision to try to avoid them at all costs.

Beyond the gains in our substantive understanding, the most important outcome of the NSF funding has been the training provided to more than two dozen students. NSF funding provided the opportunity to bring together a group of graduate student lab directors from political psychophysiology labs across the country for training workshops in 2015 and 2016. Because the Government Department at the College of William & Mary does not have a graduate program, undergraduates have been involved at every step of the project. In addition to the opportunity to attend the psychophysiological workshops, students in my research lab have been integral to the design and execution of the psychophysiological studies. And running lab experiments would be impossible without the time and energy of the proctors involved in administering the Omnibus Project.

Democratic theory hinges on the idea that all citizens have equal opportunity to voice their opinions. We should not overlook subtle and complex barriers to engagement based on people’s orientation toward conflict and disagreement, as people who prefer consensus and compromise may be discouraged from engaging meaningfully with politics in a polarized environment.

About the Authors: Jaime Settle is an assistant professor of government at the College of William & Mary. Her research explores how innate differences between people (genetic, physiological, and psychological) moderate the effects of contextual and interpersonal political interactions.

Taylor Carlson is a graduate student at UC San Diego. Her research explores how political information diffusion (and distortion) through social networks influences political learning and vote choice.

Beyond Diversity: The Salience of Ethnicity and Kenya’s Constituency Development Fund

Following is from a series of blog posts by MPSA members about their research that has received funding by either the National Science Foundation (NSF) or the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). Here, Kirk A. Harris a Ph.D. Candidate at Indiana University summarizes his NSF-funded research onPolitical Science: Ethnicity, Civic Participation, and Public Goods in Kenya.”

It looks like ethnic diversity is harmful to public goods provision. Diverse countries tend to invest less in things like education, infrastructure, and public health that promote economic growth. While explanations for this abound, a common conclusion amongst those who study African countries is that spending on public goods suffers when politicians channel resources towards their cronies and co-ethnic kin at the expense of other groups in society.

This type of kinship-oriented service provision exists in both autocracies and in “patronage democracies” (Chandra 2004), where leaders allocate resources disproportionately towards voters with whom they share an ethnic identity – or at least voters believe that they do. But this ethnic targeting of development resources is certainly not ubiquitous, and observing this pattern isn’t the same as explaining why it happens. So, when do leaders decide to target development resources towards co-ethnics, and why?

Kenya’s Constituency Development Fund (CDF) provides an excellent context in which to examine the relationship between ethnicity and public goods provision. The CDF gives all 290 members of Kenya’s National Assembly who are elected from single-member districts significant financial resources to form a local committee that makes decisions about funding clinics, schools, roads, and other community infrastructure projects within their parliamentary constituency. These committees have substantial autonomy over how the CDF is managed and where projects should be located.

As part of my dissertation research, I carried out over 150 semi-structured interviews with individuals in six different Kenyan parliamentary constituencies as well as representative public opinion surveys in three of these constituencies in order to understand the politics of resource allocation, and to find out just who benefits from CDF projects in these regions.

The constituencies that I study contain groups who distinguish between themselves on an “ethnic” basis – group membership is determined by socially-defined, “visible”, descent-based characteristics. But the nature and importance of these ethnic cleavages differs across constituencies. In some regions, groups differentiate between themselves on the basis of their membership in locally-relevant ‘clan’ groups even as they acknowledge a common overarching ethnic identity that sets them apart from other Kenyans. In other, more “cosmopolitan,” regions members of different groups perceive no such overarching kinship tie connecting them to their neighbors.

In these latter constituencies, ethnicity often serves as a reliable heuristic for how citizens vote in local and national elections. The “image” of political parties is strongly associated with different ethnic groups and candidates from a given ethnic community feel compelled to stand as representatives of “their” group’s party if they are to have any chance of victory (cf. Ferree 2006 , Posner 2005).  Because voters’ choice of candidates in such contexts is determined more by their ethnic identity and party identification than by an incumbent’s performance in office, politicians have an electoral incentive to allocate resources towards their co-ethnics as a way of shoring up support amongst their kin.

By contrast, in diverse constituencies where ethnicity is not a politically salient feature politicians lack the incentives to engage in this type of ethnically-oriented patronage and must rely on other criteria to guide the distribution of CDF resources. In these settings, politicians are able to leverage the CDF to appeal to voters from a range of ethnic groups within the constituency. And challengers from other parties can likewise make credible appeals across ethnic boundaries about their ability to serve all constituents rather than simply those with whom they share an ethnic identity.

These findings suggest that a narrow focus on ethnic diversity as detrimental to public goods provision is misguided. It is not diversity itself, but the political salience of ethnic divisions that motivates the ethnically-biased distribution of local development resources in Africa’s new democracies. Elected politicians will use ethnic criteria in the distribution of development resources only when they stand to gain votes by doing so.

Kirk A. Harris is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Political Science at Indiana University who specializes in the study of democracy and development in Africa. His dissertation research, on ethnicity and resource allocation in Kenya’s CDF, was funded in part via a Doctoral Dissertation Research Improvement Grant (DDRIG) from the National Science Foundation (SES-1423998). Harris can be contacted via email at 

Studying the Immediate Impact of Racially Traumatic Stressful Events

Following is one in a series of blog posts by MPSA members about their research that has received funding by either the National Science Foundation (NSF) or the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH).

Here, Principal Investigator, Byron D’Andra Orey of Jackson State University, summarizes his research on “The Impact of Racially Traumatic Stressful Events on African Americans’ Psychological, Physiological and Political Responses.” 

Examples of images used in the Orey’s physiological study.

The many shootings of unarmed African Americans over the last few years prompted me to begin writing a grant proposal in September 2014, one month after an African-American male, Michael Brown, was gunned down by a white male police officer, Darren Wilson, in Ferguson, Missouri. During the month of March 2015, four such deaths occurred in a span of only five days in Aurora, Colorado, Chamblee, Georgia, Los Angeles, California, and Madison, Wisconsin.

In May of 2015, I submitted the proposal to study the impact of what I have termed Racially Traumatic Stressful Events (RTSEs) on voters’ psychological, physiological and political responses which was awarded the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Rapid Response Research (RAPID) grant. RTSEs are defined as race-related incidents that result in trauma and stress for some of those who are directly or indirectly exposed to such events. Such events can yield negative responses, even if individuals were not directly exposed to these events. For example, indirect exposure may occur when Facebook users are forced to watch events as immediately-streaming videos appear in newsfeeds.

In response to two of the most publicized cases, the killings of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and Eric Garner in New York, protesters responded violently by killing two police officers in New York and wounding two in Ferguson.

Arguably, such violence was at the hand of individuals who were enraged by RTSEs. These individuals had been pushed to their limits and responded as such. Additionally, after witnessing the uprising across the country (e.g., Black Lives Matter movement), this research became even more important, given the dearth of biopolitics studies that include sizeable numbers of African-American subjects to study their political attitudes and behavior.

Due to my location and proximity to Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) in the Deep South, I had a unique opportunity to pursue research using a large N of African-American subjects. It should be noted that though not all HBCUs are made up exclusively of African Americans or people of color, they were borne of segregation and continue to maintain this designation.

The first experiment was initiated in September 2014, approximately one month following the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. The data were collected from two convenience samples consisting of African-American undergraduates recruited from a Historically Black University, located in the South. A total of 115 subjects were recruited from online introductory level American Government courses and Introduction to Political Science courses to complete an online survey.

In this analysis, a pre- and post-test were conducted examining subjects’ attitudes one week prior to the grand jury’s decision and one week afterwards. The pre-test served as a control and did not include a stimulus as students were simply asked to complete an online survey. The post-test, on the other hand, included two stimuli that were randomly disseminated to two groups receiving pictures of a group of black police officers wearing riot gear and a group of white officers wearing the exact same gear. Based on these findings, blacks who were exposed to white police officers possessed more anger towards America when compared to the control; whereas, there was no significant difference between subjects who were exposed to black police officers and the control group. The findings here are somewhat predictable given the media coverage of white police officers killing blacks.

In the second analysis, items used to measure American Identity proved to be ineffective in achieving a statistically significant relationship between the stimuli and the control group. A second analysis was run by including only one of the items: “Being an American is important to the way that I think about myself as a person.” Based on these findings, subjects who were exposed to the stimulus with black police officers agreed to the statement that being American is important in the way they think about themselves more than the control group. One explanation here might be that blacks were more trustful of black police when compared to whites. For example, using anecdotal information, the media coverage included a black captain of the Missouri Highway Patrol who informed the public that he could empathize with the protesters because he too had a son. For a brief while, he was able to calm black protesters prior to the grand jury’s decision. This is consistent with evidence that shows community police officers are viewed as more trustworthy by the citizens who live in those communities.

In the physiological study, subjects were exposed to a random set of stimuli that consisted of happy images as well as images of police and protesters behaving violently. Three physiological measures have been used in this study: electrodermal activity (EDA), respiratory measures and electrocardiogram (ECG). At current, however, electrodermal measures have been used the most frequently because of time constraints. In other words, because we wanted to acquire preliminary results before moving forward with the actual study (which required paying the subjects), only one measure was employed and analyzed. I was able to analyze data using 15 subjects with results revealing that subjects who were exposed to both images of the police and protesters responded more when compared to the baseline than those who saw happy images.

Broader Impact and NSFs Rationale for Incorporating the Research

One of the most significant and rewarding outcomes I have experienced related to NSF-funded projects has been seeing the real world benefit of increasing the number of African-Americans in summer research and graduate programs.

Because of this grant, I was able to employ 10 part-time undergraduate and graduate students to assist with the research. Of those 10, five worked with me beyond the initial project. All five of those students received summer internships or fellowships. After receiving multiple offers, one graduate student working on this project has accepted an offer to attend one of the most noted biopolics programs at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. Student researchers involved with the project have also been offered summer fellowships by the University of Chicago, Princeton, Michigan State University, and Duke University’s prestigious Bunche Institute. One student received an internship with the ACLU office in Jackson, Mississippi and a Business major working on the project has accepted an internship with a Beverly Hill’s marketing firm.

It should also be noted that following an NSF grant in 2008 which also focused on student research, students from Jackson State University have enrolled in PhD programs at the University of Michigan, the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, Texas A&M, Purdue University, the University of Mississippi, the University of Texas, San Antonio, and Jackson State University. Students have participated in summer programs at Princeton, Harvard, Duke, the University of California, Irvine, Michigan State University, and the University of Chicago, while others have received multiple internships.

About the Author: Byron D’Andra Orey is a Professor of Political Science at Jackson State University. His research is in the area of race and politics, focusing heavily on racial attitudes and legislative behavior.