Friday, February 29, 2008

Talking to People Like Yourself

An ongoing thread of research questions whether there is some political risk to hanging out and talking to people who are pretty much like ourselves. The theory is that we're better off with a network of folks who disagree with our points of view. This will expose people to other viewpoints. But the reality is we tend to have interpersonal networks that look a lot like ourselves.

Some folks tested whether it matters in terms of political knowledge -- is your conversational network made up of people who agree with you, or people who disagree.

The result? It "suggests that individuals who reside in diverse networks benefit little from frequent political talk, whereas those surrounded by like-minded discussion partners appear to acquire significantly more knowledge as a function of increasing discussion." The article appeared in a 2008 issue of Communication Research.

At first I found this counterintuitive, and there are some caveats. The authors use issue knowledge and it has a lousy Cronbach's Alpha of .47. That's troubling, so much so I'm a little surprised the research got through the journal's vetting process. Their background knowledge index performs significantly better.

I don't want to go all PhDweeb on this one, but the authors have some neat suggestions on why they found what they did. Maybe negative or non-supporting conversations confuse people to the degree that knowledge gets all messed up. Perhaps affect gets in the way of learning. This is odd since there are some suggestions that advertising, even negative adds, improve learning. As scholars often do, almost as boilerplate, there is a call for more research to tease out what's going on here.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Studies I'd Like To See

We have the presidential election, so here are some studies I'd like to see done.
  • Assuming Obama is the Democratic nominee, a study of "knowledge" about him that focuses more on misinformation than actual fact. For example, who thinks he is secretly a Muslim and what media do they consume, if any? Internet? Talk radio?
  • Ditto on McCain, especially the notion floating around that he caved to torture while being held in Vietnam.
  • Which areas of "knowledge" (from misinformation to actual information) best predict vote choice.
  • Trust in government. This is an interest of mine and I'm doing some work at the moment on this topic. Trust has eroded of late. Will this year see a blip up? And what are the predictors and consequences of such trust?
  • Conservative Christians ... where do they go? I'd love to see some in-depth work done on what they learned and how they learned about this campaign, probably through focus groups and in-depth interviews. They are conflicted given the GOP candidate isn't truly a good fit. Reminds me of the old cross-pressure research.
  • Media fragmentation. Another favorite topic of mine, so this time where are people learning about the campaign. As I've said earlier, I suspect advertising to play a greater role than ever before as people flee news for entertainment-oriented fare. Ads can still reach those folks. Knowledge -> Turnout.

I'm sure I'll think of others, but every election is a moment ripe for research ideas. I've got my own plans, some of which resemble those above, but I hope to see other people doing neat stuff.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Five of What We Know

I was reading a chapter yesterday written by Michael X. Delli Carpini, among the top guys in the field on what people know. "The literature on political knowledge provides fiarly compelling evidence for five characterizations regarding what Americans know," he writes. They are:
  1. The average Americans is poorly informed but not uninformed about public affairs.
  2. Knowledge remains relatively unchanged for the last 50 years.
  3. Americans are slightly less informed than those in other countries.
  4. The idea of "average knowledge" masks important differences among groups
  5. Knowledge is associated with a lot of the stuff of democracy and citizenship, such as voting.

The chapter appears in Communicating Politics: Engaging the Public in Democratic Life. You can find a freebie online version of the chapter here.

I've talked about most of these, but of interest to me at the moment is #5 and the consequences of political knowledge. In fact I'm working through an idea on consequences from a related variable called wishful thinking, which has to do with estimating an election outcome. More on that some other time.

Instead, I'm also working at the moment on how people answer different kinds of political knowledge questions. So far I can say this -- data suck. They get in the way of a good theory. But with another work I think I can safely say that the way we ask certain kinds of questions can get very different answers, depending on the kind of people you ask. This fits #4 above. Still in analysis mode, so don't have any handy-dandy results to share.

And none of this is anywhere as much fun as titular colonicity. Sorry.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Titular Colonicity

Titular colonicity is not a medical test that involves bending over for a doctor wearing rubber gloves. No, this has to do with our tendency to put colons in titles, especially academic work. A study from a while back examined this from 1880 to 1980. Brilliant! And heck, who knew it had a name?

I've always wanted to do a study of colons in our academic journal article titles, and now I have a keyword and some theoretical background. The use of the colon is considered the mark of scholarly quality. Who needs good research as long as you have the following:

Clever Phrase (colon) Description of the Research

The authors found that 72 percent of articles in 30 journals included a colon. And it's historical. They have a neat graphic that shows how around 1950 or so there is a leap in use of the colon. Cool!

I'd love to look at the mass comm literature over time and compare it to a similar field, like political science or speech comm or sociology. And are there kinds of research in mass comm that are more likely to use colons versus others? The only way to find out is to do it. Of course then I'd have to figure out where to send such research.

And I'd also need a title. With a colon.

Monday, February 4, 2008

Name Recognition Research

I'm just getting into this, the research on name recogntion. Why? I'm kinda curious as to whether it matters how you ask the following:
  • Prompt with a name, such as Dick Cheney, and ask them what office that person holds.
  • Prompt with the office, such as vice president, and ask them to name the person.
I suspect the second is the more difficult. A name carries with it all the cognitive and affective baggage one would expect, including the office or position that person holds. The office? If I ask who is the VP you gotta first access what the position is, maybe get some history messed up in there, the constitutional requirements, and all that crud. It's a busy task and people are cognitive misers, which is PhDweebSpeak for we take mental shortcuts. Take a shortcut and you're more likely to be wrong, or just not answer.

Okay, but why am I writing about this?

I suspect people who rely on television or entertainment media, like Colbert or Stewart, will do okay at the name-and-then-office question option, but they'll do less well at the office-then-name question -- at least compared to people who read the news online or via ink on smushed paper. I am going to test just this in some analyses this week, perhaps for a journal submission or conference paper.

Unfortunately the data always get in the way of a good theory. I'll know in a day or two when I run some quick-and-dirty tests to see if the notion is worth pursuing.

Friday, February 1, 2008

Going Negative Column

I summed up some of my earlier thoughts about negative ads and changing media habits in this newspaper column, published earlier this week by the Athens Banner-Herald.