Being the election season, it should come as little surprise that psychological science and political science should converge in some of the research reported in recent weeks.
In mid-September researchers at Ohio State University reported the results of a study they actually did in the waning days of the 2008 presidential campaign -- measuring physical responses to partisan ads for candidates Barack Obama and John McCain.
Fifteen students were connected to electrodes that measured heart rate, sweating (as it relates to how stimulated and alert someone is), and muscle movements around the cheekbones and eyebrows. Combined, these physical responses indicate emotional response and attention levels.
While connected, each student watched 12 ads -- six each for Obama and McCain. After watching, each student filled out a survey of how positively and negatively he or she felt about the two candidates.
Zheng Wang, an assistant professor of communications at OSU, and colleagues found that the students responded with strong physical signs to ads for the candidate they favored, but barely responded to ads for his rival. People who said they didn't favor a candidate had similar physical responses to all the ads.
Wang said a lot of research has shown a tendency to respond warmly to messages that reinforce what we already believe. But the study shows that when presented with ads we disagree with, we actively respond by tuning out the message.
While partisanship may guide our feelings about political ads, another Ohio State study published online in January shows that most partisans don't avoid sources of news and opinion that contradict what they believe. The more that self-described liberals and conservatives visited online sites backing their views, the more likely they also were to view websites featuring opposing views as well as general news media sites.
Researchers led by R. Kelly Garrett, also an assistant professor of communications, reviewed data from five media-use surveys taken between 2004 and 2008. Each involved 600 to 2,500 Americans selected at random.
The surveys showed that about 14 percent of Americans use websites with content that's consistent with their political views. But 2008 data showed that the more often people visited sites that conform to their views, the more likely they were to also visit sites that opposed their views. And Garrett, reporting online in the journal Political Behavior, noted that people who went to partisan sites sought out the opposing information -- whether they considered themselves very interested in politics or only casually interested.
At the same time, the surveys showed that people who visited partisan sites were also about twice as likely to also visit mainstream media sites as people who didn't view the partisan sites. They also went to them more often than the partisan sites.
Of course, partisan feelings finally matter only to the extent that they influence how people vote -- if they do vote.
A recent study published in the journal Nature showed that a single Facebook message posted on Election Day 2010 brought roughly 340,000 people to the polls who otherwise would not have voted.
The experiment, led by James Fowler, a professor of political science and medical genetics at the University of California, San Diego, involved a social, nonpartisan "get out the vote" message placed atop the social media site's newsfeeds on Nov. 2, 2010. About 60 million people could see the message.
Along with a reminder that "today is Election Day" and a clickable "I voted" button, the message bar included links to locate polling places, a counter that displayed how many Facebook users had already reported voting, and up to six profile pictures of Facebook friends who had reported voting.
About 600,000 users were randomly assigned to see an identical message, minus any friends. And another 600,000 saw no Election Day message at all.
Users who got the social message were more likely than the others to look for a polling place and to click the "I voted" button. The researchers developed a technique that allowed them to use publicly available voting records to compare rates of turnout between Facebook users who saw the message and those who didn't.
Voting rates were highest among the group that got the message with friends included. Researchers estimate it prodded about 60,000 extra votes. But the message's spread on the social network, to friends who didn't see the original missive, mobilized another 280,000 voters, Fowler said.
(Contact Lee Bowman at BowmanL@shns.com BowmanL@shns.com.)
Copyright 2010 The E.W. Scripps Co. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed
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