Ongoing Research

Prospective Economic Costs Undermine Expectations of Social Distancing Compliance

(with Peter John Loewen)

Abstract: The COVID-19 pandemic has placed an extraordinary burden on governments and citizens alike. In order to contain the spread of the pandemic and limit its effect on health care systems, citizens have been asked to forego social and economic activity to protect others at a tremendous cost to themselves. We argue that participation in social distancing can be seen as contributions to a public good, and thus willingness to participate will be influenced by the marginal costs and benefits of those contributions and expectations that other citizens will participate. We test our theory using three survey experiments conducted on nationally representative samples of citizens. We find that respondents have lower expectations of social distancing compliance by other citizens and by themselves in response to information related to the high prospective economic costs of social distancing. We show that the effect of prospective economic costs on self-expectations of social distancing compliance is strongest among younger respondents and those outside of dense-urban areas – two groups who face higher costs relative to benefits of social distancing. We also find evidence of a causal link between respondents’ expectations of social distancing compliance by other citizens and their self-expectations of compliance with these guidelines. This suggests that some of the effect of prospective economic cost on self-expectations may be mediated by changes in expectations of other citizens’ behaviour.

Pre-print link:

Anti-intellectualism and Information Preferences during the COVID-19 Pandemic

(with Peter John Loewen, Taylor Owen, and Derek Ruths)

The COVID-19 pandemic necessitates widespread voluntary and sustained public compliance with expert-guided public health directives, like social or physical distancing. Understanding which citizens seek out and engage with expert messages regarding COVID-19 is thus of central importance. Anti-intellectualism – the generalized distrust of experts and intellectuals – is likely to be a dominant factor. This note presents the results of two survey experiments from large nationally representative samples of Canadians (N~2,500) that illustrate citizen preference for 1) COVID-19 news, which they view as more important; and 2) COVID-19 information from experts, which they view as more credible. These information-seeking preferences and evaluations dissipate among those with high levels of anti-intellectual sentiment. Associations between anti-intellectualism and COVID-19 risk perceptions and social distancing compliance may, at least in part, be explained by divergence in information preferences.

Pre-print link:

The Causes and Consequences of COVID-19 Misperceptions: Understanding the Role of News and Social Media

(with Aengus Bridgman, Peter John Loewen, Taylor Owen, Derek Ruths, Lisa Teichmann, and Oleg Zhilin)

We investigate the relationship between media consumption, misinformation, and important attitudes and behaviours during the COVID-19 pandemic in Canada. We find that comparatively more misinformation circulates on social media platforms, while traditional news media tend to reinforce public health recommendations like social distancing. We find that exposure to social media is associated with misperceptions about COVID-19 while the inverse is true for news media. These misperceptions are in turn associated with lower compliance with social distancing measures. We thus draw a link from misinformation on social media to behaviours and attitudes that potentially magnify the scale and lethality of COVID-19.

Pre-print link:

Polarization Eh? Ideological Divergence and Partisan Sorting in the Canadian Mass Public

There has be increasing concern among commentators and scholars about a possible polarization of the Canadian public that resembles what we have seen south of the border. There are, however, multiple competing conceptual definitions and perspectives on polarization, and we do not yet have a full and complete picture on which dimensions Canadians have or have not polarized, nor on the magnitudes of any patterns. This paper uses the cumulative file of the Canadian Election Study (CES) to measure trends in ideological divergence, ideological consistency, and partisan sorting in the Canadian mass public. It finds little evidence that Canadians are becoming more polarized. They are, however, becoming modestly more ideologically consistent, and much more sorted – that is, partisanship, ideology, and policy beliefs are increasingly interconnected, particularly among those with high levels of political interest. This paper also provides some evidence as to the mechanism undergirding partisan sorting using the 2004-2008 CES panel. Partisan sorting appears to be driven by people switching their partisanship into closer alignment with their beliefs rather than vice versa. These findings call for additional research on the causes and consequences of partisan sorting in Canada, and further efforts to situate them in a comparative context.

Ideological and Partisan Bias in the Canadian Public: Evidence from Three Studies

Some scholars have found that Canadians are both becoming more sorted – in that their partisanship and policy beliefs are increasingly correlated – and more affectively polarized. These processes should have observable consequences in Canada, such as the biased search and assimilation of political information. This paper presents the results of three studies that test for partisan or ideological bias in information search and processing using the Digital Democracy Project’s 2019 Canadian Election Study. Study 1 is a paired conjoint experiment that asks respondents to choose from a pair of hypothetical news stories that they would be most interested in reading. Respondents were more likely to select politically-congenial news content, but not sources. Study 2 tests for partisan-motivated responsiveness to party elite cues. Respondents were provided with a policy vignette that manipulated the presence of party elite cues and a motivational prime (either accuracy or direction). Respondents exposed to party cues gave more partisan-congenial responses, but only when their political, directional motivation was primed. Study 3 required respondents to solve a randomly assigned numeracy task. The results show that respondents given a political variant of the task were much more likely to get the answer right (or wrong) when the answer was congenial (or opposed) to their ideological preferences. Ideology did not predict correct answers among those exposed to the non-political task, but numerical aptitude did. Taken together, these three studies provide novel evidence of partisan and ideological bias in the Canadian public.

Whose News? The Media and the Distribution of Economic Gains and Losses

(with Tim Hicks, Alan Jacobs, and Scott Matthews)

There is considerable evidence that citizens’ choices at the ballot box are shaped by their assessments of the state of the economy. We also know that economic perceptions are considerably influenced by the news, and that economic news responds differently to different kinds of economic developments. This paper advances our understanding of how the news responds to the economy by investigating _whose_ economic welfare drives economic reporting. In particular, how responsive is economic news to developments shaping the material fortunes of the rich, the broad middle, or the poor? In this paper, we analyze a massive dataset of economic news content over the last three decades in the United States to examine how the tone of economic news responds to real economic developments with differing distributional consequences. The analysis draws on all economic news stories from the New York Times and the Washington Post between 1977 and 2013, together with all economic news from 13 other newspapers among the top 50 in print or digital circulation between the years 1991 and 2013, yielding a dataset of almost 1 million observations. We use Lexicoder, an automated, dictionary-based coding tool with high validity for large samples, to measure the positivity or negativity of all economic stories in the selected newspapers. This allows us to generate annual and quarterly tone scores for the economic news being consumed by a large share of the American electorate over the last three decades (cf. Soroka, Stecula & Wlezien, 2014). We validate this index as a measure of the tone of the broad news environment by demonstrating that it acts as a strong predictor of consumer evaluations of the state of the economy and of the government’s performance in managing the economy (when controlling for actual economic conditions). We then undertake time-series analysis to examine how well the tone of economic news tracks changes in economic fundamentals with differing distributional implications, including median earnings, corporate profits, and capital incomes. The results will provide novel insight into the political economy of economic information, yielding a systematic and detailed portrait of the informational environment within which voters punish and reward their representatives. The findings will also help us make further sense of the mass politics of inequality (Bartels, 2008; Gilens, 2012). Whether low- and middle-income voters are equipped to defend their economic interests at election time depends critically on the distributional content of the informational environment in which they make economic and electoral judgments.

Prepared for presentation at the APSA Annual Conference 2016 in Philadelphia. Link here.

Protest Under Uncertainty: Evidence from a Survey Experiment

(with Miriam Matejova)

Environmental disasters generate uncertainty, which is a crucial element of post-disaster political dynamics. Does communication of uncertainty affect public willingness to participate in political activism such as protest? In theory, uncertainty framing may trigger emotions like anxiety, which reduce people’s willingness to engage in protest activity. Since uncertainty frames are often used to reify the status quo, the dampening effect of uncertainty will be stronger among those who are ideologically conservative. This article provides a content analysis of news coverage to show that uncertainty framing is prevalent in the aftermath of several important disasters. The article then presents a survey experiment of over 3,600 Americans recruited through Amazon Mechanical Turk. Uncertainty framing did not affect respondents’ self-reported anxiety and willingness to engage in political activism. However, such framing dampened the willingness to protest among more ideologically conservative respondents, while liberals were comparatively resistant. These results help explain why some protest coalitions may have more breadth than others after environmental disasters.