International Society of Political Psychology

Conference Abstracts

Motivated Voters and Negative Information: When Attention Leads to Attitudinal Polarization

Michael Meffert, Leiden University; Amber Joiner, University of Nevada; Sungeun Chung, Sungkyunkwan University; Leah Waks, University of Maryland

Conference: ISPP 2011
Affiliation: Leiden University
Research Area: Political decision making

Negative campaign information tends to capture the attention of voters (and researchers), but it often seems to fail in persuading voters. One possible explanation is motivated information processing. Once voters have made a commitment to a party or candidate, they do not simply accept counter-attitudinal information but rather discount it or even counterargue against it. As a consequence, such counter-attitudinal challenges might rather strengthen earlier commitments instead of weakening them, and eventually lead to attitudinal polarization.
In the paper, we report the results of a study that tested these assumptions with an experimental design. Using a computer-based information board, we simulated an election campaign with a balanced flow of positive, neutral, and negative information about two candidates. The information selection and processing time of the participants was recorded, and combined with various pre- and post-search measures of political attitudes as well as thought-listing and recall tasks, we have the opportunity to investigate participants’ information processing and attitudinal outcomes in great detail.
The results show that participants indeed selected more and spent more time reading negative information about the preferred candidate. At the same time, voters disagreed with this preference-inconsistent information and rather developed a more positive attitude toward the preferred candidate. The results suggest that it is crucial to distinguish between different stages of information processing, especially attention and processing, in order to capture these partially contradictory effects. The paper ends with a discussion of the implications of motivated information processing for research on campaign effects.