Partisanship and Information Processing: Perceptions and Expectations
26 Pages Posted: 5 Apr 2011
Date Written: March 30, 2011
Democratic theory assumes that citizens can fairly evaluate political candidates and parties. Research into citizens’ judgments, however, has long since indicated a problem with this assumption: instead of seeing the world clearly, citizens’ party loyalties may distort their perceptions. The authors of The American Voter conclude, for example, that identifying with a party raises a perceptual screen that colors how people view the political world. Despite partisanship’s widely accepted importance in structuring political behavior, few studies have tested this claim. Does partisanship actually distort perceptions? In this paper, we test this long-standing claim against an alternative view of partisanship, which sees it as a "cognitive shortcut" or "cue" that allows citizens to situate new information within their larger understanding of the political world.
Drawing on recent work in psychology, we use two experiments that manipulate the placement of a party labels, putting them either before or after politically relevant information that we later ask respondents to evaluate. If party is simply a "shortcut" that has no effect on perceptions, the order of the party labels should have no effect on subjects’ evaluations of the substantive information. On the other hand, if party functions as a powerful "screen" that alters the experience of reading the information, subjects who receive the cue at the start of the information should exhibit a higher party effect than those who receive it at the end. We find no support for the "perceptual screen" model across either experiment.
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