I work collaboratively with a group of fantastic undergraduate research assistants as part of the Social Networks and Political Psychology Lab (SNaPP Lab).
I also co-direct the Social Science Research Methods Center, coordinating opportunities for undergraduates to develop and improve their research skills (SSRMC).
My research demonstrates that much of our political behavior is rooted in genetic predispositions and physiological response, with important consequences for how we respond to our social and contextual environments. For some people, political contention—in the form of competitive elections or heated conversations—is a motivating factor that increases political engagement. For others, the stress of disagreeable political interaction—concerns about ramifications on social relationships or the fear of negative evaluation by others—is enough to make their hearts race and their palms sweat. This aversive physiological response may lead to censoring one’s political expression, publically conforming to the opinion of the majority, or decreasing one’s political engagement in the future. The social media communication environment exacerbates the harmful social implications of political communication. Many of the norms that maintain civility and restrain judgment in face-to-face interactions are weakened in the online context. Absent these moderating forces, social media interactions facilitate psychological processes that exacerbate affective and perceived polarization.
I describe more about the two veins of my current research agenda below:
I have received funding from the NSF for a project titled “Understanding the Mechanisms for Disengagement from Contentious Political Interaction (NSF-1423788),” working collaboratively with Taylor Carlson and aided by students in my research lab. This project identifies the mechanisms driving disengagement from political interactions, which people are most susceptible to social stress in the political sphere, and which situations generate the most pressure toward political disengagement. We theorize that individual psychological differences moderate how people interpret the demands and ramifications of contentious social interactions about politics. In other words, a person’s decision about whether to communicate about politics reflects social considerations as much as his or her political interest or knowledge. To test our hypotheses, we have collected a wide variety of data: two surveys to samples of Americans that mirror a nationally representative sample; physiological data using two different experimental protocols collected on nearly 400 subjects; and vignette, survey, and behavioral economics style experiments conducted on Mechanical Turk. To date, we have one publication out of this collaborative research agenda that demonstrates the extent to which individuals act like “chameleons,” publically conforming to a majority viewpoint while maintaining privately their disagreeable political opinions. We have several additional manuscripts that have been prepared as conference papers that have been or will be sent out for review in 2018-2019. Our book manuscript based on this research, Disinclined and Disengaged: How Our Brains, Bodies, and Biases Lead Us to Avoid Politics, will be sent out for review in 2019.
My first book manuscript, Frenemies: How Social Media Polarizes America, was published by Cambridge University Press in 2018. I argue that 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. Facebook has become pervasive in the daily lives of most Americans. Approximately 75% of adults have a Facebook account and the majority of users log on to the site at least once a day. Facebook users are not able to avoid exposure to the political content posted by their contacts. Because of the motivations most people have for using the site—to learn about the lives of their family, friends, and acquaintances—that exposure has consequences for the connections they make between people’s political and social identities. I first develop a novel theoretical perspective, the END Framework, for the study of political interaction on social media. My 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. I then systematically test 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 don’t 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.
- Frenemies: How Social Media Polarizes America (2018)
- "Opting Out of Political Discussions,” with Taylor N. Carlson (Forthcoming at Political Communication)
- "Follow Your Heart: Could Psychophysiology Be Associated with Political Discussion Network Homogeneity? ,” with Taylor N. Carlson and Charles T. McClean (Forthcoming at Political Psychology)
- “Negative Affectivity, Political Contention, and Turnout: A Genopolitics Field Experiment,” with Christopher Dawes, Peter J. Loewen and Costas Panagopoulos. Political Psychology 38(6): 1065-1082 (December 2017)
- "Social Endorsement Cues and Political Participation in an Experiment Involving 61 Million Facebook Users,” with Robert Bond, Christopher J. Fariss, James H. Fowler, Jason J. Jones. Political Communication 34(2):261-281 (June 2017)
- “The Differential Effects of Stress on Voter Turnout,” with Hans J. G. Hassell, Political Psychology 38(3): 533-550 (June 2017)
- “Political Chameleons: An Exploration of Conformity in Political Discussions,” with Taylor N. Carlson. Political Behavior 38(4): 817-859 (December 2016)
- “From Posting to Voting: The Effects of Political Competition on Online Political Engagement,” with Robert Bond, Lorenzo Coviello, Christopher J. Fariss, James H. Fowler, Jason J. Jones. Political Science Research and Methods 4(2): 361-378 (May 2016)
- “Genes, Psychological Traits, and Civic Engagement, ” with Christopher Dawes, Peter Loewen, Matt McGue, and William G. Iacono. Philosophical Transactions B (December 2015)
- "A Natural Experiment in Proposal Power and Electoral Success," with Peter John Loewen, Royce Koop, Jaime Settle, and James H. Fowler, American Journal of Political Science 58(1): 189-196 (January 2014)
- "Yahtzee: An Anonymized Group Level Matching Procedure," with Jason Jones, Robert Bond, Christopher J. Fariss, Cameron Marlow, Adam Kramer, and James Fowler, PLoS ONE 8(2): e55760 (February 2013)
- "Inferring Tie Strength from Online Directed Behavior," with Jason Jones, Robert Bond, Christopher J. Fariss, Cameron Marlow, Adam Kramer, and James H. Fowler, PLoS ONE 8(1): e52168 (January 2013)
- "A 61-Million-Person Experiment in Social Influence and Political Mobilization," with Robert Bond, Christopher J. Fariss, James H. Fowler, Jason J. Jones, Adam D. I. Kramer, and Cameron Marlow, Nature 489: 295-298 (13 September 2012)
- "Integrating Social Science and Genetics: News from the Political Front," with Peter Hatemi, Christopher Dawes, Brad Verhulst, and Amanda Frost Keller, Biodemography, 57(1):67-87 (May 2011)
- "The Social Origins of Adult Political Behavior," with Robert Bond and Justin Levitt, American Politics Research, (March 2011)
- "Correlated Genotypes in Friendship Networks," with James Fowler and Nicholas Christakis, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 108(5): 1993-1997 (1 February 2011)
- "Friendships Moderate an Association between a Dopamine Gene Variant and Political Ideology," (with James Fowler, Christopher Dawes, and Nicholas Christakis), Journal of Politics 72 (4): 1189–1198 (October 2010)
- "The Heritability of Partisan Attachment," with James H. Fowler and Christopher T. Dawes. Political Research Quarterly 62(3): 601-613 (September 2009)
- “Network Experiments through Academic-Industry Collaboration,” with Robert M. Bond, Chris J. Fariss, and Jason J. Jones. Eds. Yong Yeol Ahn and Sune Lehmann. Spreading Dynamics in Social Systems: Spring Nature Press (accepted for publication)
- “Moving Beyond Sentiment Analysis: Social Media and Emotions in Political Communication.” Eds. Brooke Foucault-Welles and Sandra Gonzalez Bailon. The Oxford Handbook of Networked Communication. Oxford: Oxford University Press (2017)
- Fowler, James H., Peter John Loewen, Christopher T. Dawes, and Jaime Settle. 2011. “Games, Genes, and Political Participation.” Eds. Rose McDermott and Pete Hatemi. Man is by Nature and Nurture a Political Animal. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Manuscripts and Working Papers
- Disinclined and Disengaged: How Our Brains, Bodies, and Biases Lead Us to Avoid Politics. Book manuscript co-authored with Taylor N. Carlson. Expected submission in 2019.
- “Exploring the Psychophysiological Underpinnings of Political Discussion,” with Taylor N. Carlson
- “The Social and Psychological Repercussions of Choosing Knowledgeable Political Informants: Evidence from Three Experiments,” with Taylor N. Carlson
- “Gender Differences in the Polarizing Effects of Social Media,” with Carl Lasker, Amanda Wong, Grace Murray, and Katie Ferguson
These are some of the people I’ve worked with in the past or am working with now.
- Robert Bond, Assistant Professor, Communication Department, Ohio State University
- Nicholas Christakis, Director of the Human Nature Lab, Yale University
- Christopher Dawes, Associate Professor, Department of Politics, New York University
- Christopher J. Fariss, Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science, University of Michigan
- Taylor Carlson, Graduate Student at UC San Diego (William and Mary Graduate)
- James H. Fowler, Professor of Medical Genetics and Political Science, The University of California, San Diego
- Amanda Frost-Keller, Graduate Student in Political Science, University of Iowa
- Hans J.G. Hassell, Assistant Professor of American Politics, Cornell College
- Peter Hatemi, Professor, Department of Political Science, Penn State University
- Jason J. Jones, Assistant Professor, Sociology Department, SUNY Stony Brook
- Royce Koop, Associate Professor, Department of Political Studies, University of Manitoba
- Adam Kramer, Facebook Data Scientist
- Justin Levitt, Department of Political Science, University of California, San Diego
- Peter John Loewen, Associate Professor of Political Science, University of Toronto-Mississauga
- Costas Panagopoulos, Professor of Political Science, Fordham University
- Meg Schwenzfeier, Graduate Student at Harvard University (William and Mary Graduate)
- Brad Verhulst, Research Associate Professor, Department of Psychiatry, Virginia Commonwealth University