Dynamic Public Opinion: Communication Effects Over Time
59 Pages Posted: 19 Jul 2010 Last revised: 20 Aug 2010
Date Written: 2010
We examine how people evaluate a series of competing political messages received over the course of a campaign or policy debate. Instead of assuming a message has a fixed effect, we emphasize the variable effect of a message depending on when it is received in relation to other messages. We present data from two experiments showing there are critical differences in the psychology of framing between static and dynamic contexts. Competition between messages received concurrently tends to lead to cancellation of framing effects. However, when competing messages are received sequentially, individuals typically give disproportionate weight to the most recent frame, as the accessibility of earlier arguments decays over time. Therefore, framing effects on political preferences are unlikely to be negated simply by democratic competition.
Recent messages, however, do not dominate for all individuals. Biases in how people evaluate competing messages over time vary across individuals depending on how they process information. Some individuals, owing to motivational or contextual factors, are more likely to process information in a manner that generates strong attitudes that endure. As hypothesized, individuals in our experiments who formed stronger attitudes when processing information gave greater weight to the first randomly assigned message they encountered in a sequence of messages, while individuals who formed weaker attitudes favored the last randomly assigned message they received. In the former case, competition over time produced primacy effects rather than balancing, and in the latter case, competition over time produced recency effects. We conclude by discussing the implications of our findings for understanding the power of communications in contemporary politics.
Keywords: public opinion, framing effects, information processing, competition
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