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.


Frenemies: How Social Media Polarizes America

 (Published by Cambridge University Press, 2018)

In the context of the increasing level of partisan polarization among American political elites, the radical change brought about by social media to the way that people express their political identities, access information, and communicate with each other about politics has fostered people’s increasingly negative feelings toward those who identify with the opposing party. Prof. Settle first develops a novel theoretical perspective, the END Framework, for the study of political interaction on social media. Her argument is built on an assessment of the key differentiating features of social media communication compared to the offline political behaviors that are most similar: political expression, news exposure, and discussion. The vast literature on political communication outside the realm of social media is heavily biased toward studying those doing the “talking” in a political conversation. On social media, consuming the content generated by others (“listening”) takes on new importance. Features of the Facebook News Feed create an optimal ecosystem for the mechanisms known to foster pejorative judgments of and social distancing from our political out-group: the activation of social identity, interaction in largely homogenous social networks, and exposure to polarizing and inflammatory political content.

In the second half of the book, Prof. Settle systematically tests a set of hypotheses related to the recognition, categorization, differentiation, and negative evaluation of the political out-group. Facebook users recognize a wide variety of content as being about politics. They make inferences about the political views of their social connections, based on both the political and apolitical content their Facebook friends post. Users attribute unwarranted ideological coherence and extremity to partisans on the other side of the aisle. Features embedded within the Facebook site further exacerbate these cognitive biases, leading people to believe that their own opinions are in the majority. This perpetuates false polarization—the perception of larger differences between the political parties than exist in reality. Facebook users, compared to those who do not use the site, are more judgmental about the political competence of the people with whom they disagree, and they recognize more social differences between members of the two political parties. They also preferentially select co-partisans as friends and distance themselves from their disagreeable social connections.

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