Understanding political engagement

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Why are some people highly engaged by political communication, while others are not? Why do some people believe spurious claims of political actors while others approach them all with cynicism? What are the pathways that lead from communication to participation, and how do we understand patterns of participatory behavior. It is this complex but important area of research that this project tackles.

Political engagement is defined here as a cognitive process. When the brain becomes stimulated by external stimuli, in this case relating to politics, elaboration occurs. Elaboration here means the connecting of thoughts, recognising the new information as important and relevant, a process that leads to having an attitudinal reaction. Political engagement is a necessary precursor for political participation and thus important for a vibrant civic culture.

Research normally mixes engagement with participation, with the cognitive dimensions usually reduced to processes that occur as a result of partisan affiliation or issue salience. In other words political engagement is taken for granted, ‘politics is important, ergo citizens engage’. However this is arguably a rather optimistic view of society.

In his seminal study of political participation, Olsen found political participation related to community involvement. Those citizens who were active in trade unions, church or community groups were also more likely to be involved in political activities. What Olsen failed to discuss is the scale of non-participation at any level of society. Similarly voter choices are determined by the salience of issues, their importance and relevance to the individual citizen. Does perceived non-salience predict non-voting, or is this a failure to become engaged?

This project is designed to explore the drivers of and barriers to engagement. Firstly we take a communication perspective, drawing on the field of communication psychology which as Lilleker’s work demonstrates offers hypotheses regarding how persuasive communication can lead to cognitive engagement. The theory here is that a combination of lifeworld events and communication stimuli lead to a moment of hot cognition, involving an emotional reaction to communication that spurs the individual into action. One aspect of this project is designed to explore these dynamics, determining what forms of communication can lead to activism and how this fits to the lived experiences of the individual.

Within the current political environment this project must also consider what messages elicit this hot cognitive effect. Increasingly it seems that non-progressive, nationalist, anti-immigration and populist movements gain much greater traction in public opinion than the corresponding campaigns of environmentalist or left-wing movements or indeed moderate or centrist political parties. Beliefs based on dubious factual information are gaining greater purchase over political attitudes, and consequently voting behaviour; is this because of the persuasive and manipulative capacity of populist communication; broader issues regarding political trust; socio-economic factors; or more fundamental problems in dealing with conflicting and complex arguments.

This introduces our second, cognitive, perspective regarding engagement. The abilities of citizens to process complex arguments may determine the extent they engage. The alternative being a shallow form of information processing that relies on simple heuristics, roughly described as general rules of thumb, regarding what is true and who can be trusted. Reliance on heuristics within a wide range of decision making contexts is found to cause predictable biases or systematic errors in reasoning and judgment.

This project will consider the lived experiences of individuals while also testing their abilities using the Cognitive Reflection Test (CRT) under which participants must coordinate the demands of comprehension and manipulation of information. The tasks are designed to elicit an immediate and incorrect ‘gut’ response that must be effortfully inhibited to be successful. The suggestion here is not that some people do not have the intelligence to make sound political decisions, but rather to acknowledge the body of evidence that indicates that, for many, and perhaps for most, there is a tendency towards a reliance on cognitive rules-of-thumb. This means political decisions made and conceived as being in the best interest of the decision-maker which in fact fall short of the good evidenced-based reasoning which they are seeking. Moreover, for some individuals there is a tendency to accept uncritically and unreflectively some arguments without applying even cognitive rules-of-thumb. Any one of these can mean that some people are more suggestible and likely to be manipulated into accepting persuasive arguments as their own opinion. This research will test in what ways CRT performance and suggestibility correlates with political affiliation, the appeal of populist candidates / political positions and voting behavior.

The perspectives informing our research map on to two scholarships currently being offered at Bournemouth University under the supervision of the team, these will lead to projects building on their work in the respective fields of political psychology, social movements and neuroscience.

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Two studentships are now advertised to join the team and work on this project as part of a doctoral programme.

Political engagement in Post-Truth communication environments

Rational choice, social identity, neuro-cognitive ability and voting behaviour

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