Research Overview

My research investigates how people think about politics as well as how thoughts and preferences are translated into political activity. While I use various methodologies in my research, including survey and computational text analysis, I rely mostly upon experiments (both lab and survey based). Moreover, planned future projects will make use of field experiments. Brief descriptions/abstracts of current projects in progress, as well as working papers, are provided below.


Political Communication

Information Valence and Evaluations of Congress and Individual Legislators: Experimental Evidence Regarding Negativity Bias in Politics” with bennie ashton (In Progress)

Our judgments of others are based largely upon how we perceive the valence of their actions. It is well established that, in general, people tend to place more weight upon negative information when evaluating the world around them. Recent advancements in this area have illuminated that the amount of evidence needed to reverse previous interpersonal judgments varies depending on the valence of the information. This asymmetry leads to people requiring a lesser amount of negative information (versus positive) about an individual to conclude that said individual has offcially changed for the worse (better). While this asymmetric effect appears to be prevalent in the realm of mundane interpersonal evaluation, it remains unknown whether this phenomenon applies to relatively impersonal political contexts. To address this gap, this paper will feature two experiments designed to assess whether the evaluative tipping point of valenced information varies between somewhat impersonal attitudinal objects (i.e., members of Congress) and very impersonal attitudinal objects (i.e., U.S. Congress as an institution). This paper will also feature two additional experiments in order to gauge whether or not the peoples’ willingness to reward or punish the object varies depending on information valence and level of object impersonality. Overall, this paper will provide a novel theoretical contribution to our understanding of how the valence of information impacts political evaluation.

“The Cost of Alzheimer’s Disease: Effective Frames in Health Policy,” with Andrew J. Clarke And Chelsea Goforth

Despite a large literature on framing effects in political science, we know relatively little about the effcacy of competing frames. This is surprising, as frame selection is critical to the goal of national advocacy groups. We take a step toward bridging this gap by experimentally manipulating two framing strategies employed by the Alzheimer’s Association. We find, contrary to first-hand accounts, that an economic cost frame (i.e., presenting the economic burden of Alzheimer’s disease on all Americans) is no more effective than a human cost frame (i.e., the number of deaths and diagnoses each year). Our results advance the study of political frames in public policy debates and inform the strategic decisions of advocacy organizations in the United States.

“Can Grammar Really Win Elections? Reevaluating Grammatical Effects in Political Evaluation”

Prior research has found that subtle grammatical details (e.g., verbal aspect) can sway public opinion. Though, due to the nascent state of this literature, uncertainty remains regarding the true magnitude, as well as external validity, of these effects. Combined with scientific standards regarding replication and reproducibility, this suggests that more research in this area is necessary to understand the role of grammar in public opinion. Toward this end, this paper presents a series of experimental studies investigating potential grammatical effects—some of which attempt to reproduce the results of previous research in this area. Results indicate that, contrary to previous findings, subtle grammatical differences in the presentation of political information do not significantly influence public opinion. These findings, due to being contrary to other research in this area, cast further uncertainty regarding the role of grammar in political evaluation and suggest that further research in this area is yet needed.


“Exploring the Emotional Dimensions of U.S. Presidential Debates. A Big Data Approach,” with David Reinhard (In Progress)

This project, which is funded by the University of Virginia Presidential Fellowship in Data Science, investigates how politicians use emotional rhetoric during U.S. presidential debates and the impact this has on the emotional intensity of viewers. In the first phase of the project, we use a computer-based text analysis program to document and analyze the emotional content of politician’s language for each U.S. presidential debate from 1960 through the present day. In the second and third phases of the study, we utilize data mining and text analysis strategies on social media data to evaluate the types of emotional responses, as well as their intensity, that individuals watching the presidential debates experience.


“Experimental Evidence on the Relationship Between Place-based Appeals and Voter Evaluations,” with Nicholas Jacobs

Prior research has shown that social identities defined by an attachment to place (i.e., “place-based identity) are influential in shaping how citizens understand and think about political topics. Moreover, prior research has also argued that candidates sometimes utilize “place-based appeals” in order to win support among the electorate, and that such appeals are seemingly widespread. While past research has provided a rich understanding of what place-based identity and place-based appeals are, there is a large gap in what we know about the causal effects of such appeals. In this study, we address this gap by testing experimentally the effects of place-based appeals on voters’ evaluation of candidate likeability and ability to understand their constituents, across the broader American patchwork. Using a set of modified campaign mailer advertisements, we alter whether respondents see an ad that uses rural or urban imagery when introducing a candidate. We then test for the effectiveness of place-based appeals by measuring how respondents from self-reported rural and urban areas evaluate the candidate across the three conditions. Our results indicate that, consistent with existing theory, place-based appeals are impactful in shaping political evaluations among rural voters, but do not appear as relevant for urban voters. Overall, we argue that places–or symbolically charged geographical sites–are a useful, widespread, and potentially powerful political heuristic.


Americans’ Attitudes Towards Muslims and Immigrants from Majority Muslim Countries (In Progress)

I am currently engaged in a larger project consisting of multiple studies investigating American attitudes toward Muslims—both as a general social group, and as an immigrant population. While I have begun analyzing survey data related to public opinion of Muslims, planned future data collection will augment these survey data with large scale news media content analysis and computational text analysis of social media in order to better understand how conversations regarding Muslims are framed, as well as experimental data that will enable a better understanding of how these frames impact opinion. Additional studies will be conducted to investigate the extent to which (if at all) Muslims are dehumanized and whether dehumanization plays a significant role in determining attitudes toward Muslims in the American context.