Date of Award

2010

Document Type

Campus Access Dissertation

Department

Political Science

First Advisor

David Darmofal

Abstract

The purpose of this dissertation is to develop a psychological theory of interpersonal influence in political networks by examining the impact of political talk on emotion. Despite scholarly attention to interpersonal communication in political behavior research, the conflicting findings regarding the impact of political talk on opinion formation and political participation suggests the need for a solid theoretical account of political influence in social networks. The principal research question in this project is, what are the emotional effects of political talk? Using affective intelligence (Marcus et al. 2000) as a theoretical framework, I develop a theory of passionate political talk that explains how political discussion triggers emotional response via exposure to political information. First, like-minded political networks contain information consistent with partisan or ideological beliefs, which in turn may polarize emotional response. Alternatively, crosscutting political networks often contain diverse opinions and threatening information that conflict with existing political beliefs, which may depolarize emotional response. These emotional effects of political talk are expected to depend on individual- and network-level factors, such as attitude strength, political knowledge, the supply of political expertise in networks, network density, and whether an individual holds a minority partisan preference in a political network. Finally, patterns of either emotional polarization or depolarization are expected to influence political engagement (e.g., interest, opinion accuracy, participation), with polarized emotions leading to greater engagement in politics and depolarized emotions reducing political engagement. Passionate political talk theory is tested using survey data from the American National Election Studies 2008-2009 Panel Study (advance June 2009 release). The findings suggest that political talk does indeed influence emotional response as expected, and the emotional impact of political discussion does not depend on the strength of existing political biases or political sophistication. The only significant mediating influence on the depolarizing effects of political disagreement is when an individual holds a minority preference in his or her political network. Finally, the results also provide fairly consistent evidence that suggests polarized emotional reactions enhance citizen engagement in politics, while depolarized emotions diminish various aspects of political engagement. Overall, passionate political talk theory provides a unique explanation of the psychological effects of political talk, with findings that speak to the potential benefits and downsides of political disagreement.

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