Legislative Thinking: Responsibility, Motivation, and Cognitive Complexity in U.S. Statehouses

53 Pages Posted: 15 Jul 2012 Last revised: 12 Aug 2012

See all articles by Christopher Z. Mooney

Christopher Z. Mooney

Institute of Government and Public Affairs

Date Written: 2012


Under what conditions do lawmakers think in cognitively complex ways about the legislation they face? While much scholarship demonstrates that political leaders’ thinking in decision making is relatively shallow, the motivated tactician model suggests that they can be stimulated to apply more cognitive effort to certain decisions (Showers and Cantor 1985; Fiske 1993; Tetlock 1985). To test this hypothesis in legislative cognition, I use data from 334 explanations of legislation by members of the Illinois General Assembly collected in personal interviews. I find that the major force influencing the complexity of a lawmaker’s thinking on a bill is his/her personal and institutional responsibility for it. In particular, sponsors and cosponsors display significantly more differentiated thought on their bills and use information from more, and more distant, sources than do other members; on the other hand, lawmakers with no institutional responsibility for a bill display limited differentiation and information search in their deliberations, with committee members falling in a middle range. This example of “distributed cognition” both supports the motivated tactician model and has positive and negative implications for public policy.

Keywords: legislature, decision making, cognitive complexity

Suggested Citation

Mooney, Christopher Z., Legislative Thinking: Responsibility, Motivation, and Cognitive Complexity in U.S. Statehouses (2012). APSA 2012 Annual Meeting Paper, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2107766

Christopher Z. Mooney (Contact Author)

Institute of Government and Public Affairs ( email )

Urbana, IL 61801
United States

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