Active Research

Contentious Interpersonal Interactions Project (CIPI)

Democratic theory hinges on the idea that all citizens have equal opportunity to voice their opinions. Barriers to participation and representation—based on gender, race, class, and education level—persist and remain formidable challenges. However, we should not overlook more subtle—and perhaps more complex—barriers to engagement based on people’s orientation toward conflict and disagreement. People who prefer consensus and compromise may be dissuaded from engaging meaningfully with politics in a polarized environment. Identifying the facets of politics that are stressful to citizens and ways to ameliorate that stress has the potential to energize and enfranchise citizens who are discouraged by our current political system.

Prof. Settle’s past research suggests that while some people respond very positively to conflict, other people have the opposite reaction and choose to disengage from politics when they live in competitive political environments. Americans are more likely to talk about politics on a day-to-day basis in areas with competitive elections, and her research suggests that they are more emotional when they do. And people who are stressed, for all sorts of reasons, are also more likely to disengage from politics.

Her current research weaves together these past findings to try to understand what specifically is stressful about political interactions. In conjunction with Taylor Carlson (a 2014 lab alum!), Prof. Settle and her research assistants push further to explore how contentious political conversations affect the way that individuals perceive conflict in their environment, evaluate other people, and engage in (or disengage from) the political system.

This research project identifies the mechanisms driving social disengagement from politics, which people are most susceptible to social stress in the political sphere, and which situations generate the most pressure toward political disengagement. Previous research has established that certain personality traits are associated with decreased political engagement, but this relationship remains under-explored. We theorize that individual psychological differences moderate how people interpret the demands and ramifications of contentious social interactions about politics.

The project incorporates a variety of different methods—ranging from surveys to lab experiments. You can read the original grant proposal here. You can read the first published paper to come out of this project here.


Newspaper to News Feed:

How the Social Communication of Politics Affectively Polarizes the American Public

Three interconnected changes to the political communication environment have dramatically changed the day-to-day experience of politics in the last 20 years. The first two—the dawn of the Internet and the rise of cable news—led to the proliferation of sources for political information, generating a media environment that allows for active choice between sources and consequently the possibility for selective exposure to ideologically consistent news. This fundamental alteration has occurred alongside an equally important third development: the creation and widespread adoption of an entirely new forum for social political interaction, the microblogging features of social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook.

Engaging with political content on the Facebook News Feed incorporates novel behaviors at the intersection of political expression, political information seeking and political discussion. This affects the way that opinion leaders interact with and influence those in their networks, and increases exposure to political information, even for those people who are not particularly interested in politics. Most importantly, it interlaces political content into a broader web of information about the lives and values of our social ties. Prof. Settle argues that in the context of the increasing level of partisan polarization among American political elites, this radical change to the way that people express their political identities, access information, and communicate with each other about politics has implications for the way Americans conceptualize the political and social identities of their fellow citizens. Most notably, it fosters the development of affective polarization, or partisans’ increasingly negative feelings and negative trait attribution toward identifiers of the opposing party.

She uses original survey data to demonstrate that the kinds of users who generate political content on Facebook, and their reasons for doing so, create a communication ecosystem that disproportionately circulates polarizing information. This content is likely to contain framing techniques that activate users’ partisan identities. Those individuals who do not post political content to Facebook are still affected by it when they scroll through their News Feeds. People can and do make inferences about the political views of their social connections, based on both the political, and apolitical, content their Facebook friends post. Facebook users judge other users with whom they disagree to be less politically knowledgeable and to use less reliable news sources, and evaluate out-partisans as being ignorant and dogmatic. Paired with cognitive biases resulting from exposure to aggregated information about the number of users who endorse political content, people overestimate both the proportion of the population that shares their opinions and the differences between the political parties.