Join | Login

The Science of Policy Communication: Part 1

To watch a recording of the webinar on our Vimeo page, click here.

On April 5, 2012, SPSSI hosted Part 1 of the webinar The Science of Policy Communication. The webinar was aimed at policy makers and communications specialists. Psychologists, communications scientists, and political scientists presented current research from their fields that address how individual differences, media, and technological change shape people’s opinions, how voters can be motivated to make informed policy decisions about their leaders and society, how policies should be designed and communicated effectively, and what policy-makers can do to achieve these objectives in their work.

Peter Ditto, Department Chair and Professor of Psychology & Social Behavior at University of California Irvine, presents on the topic of how moral intuitions shape factual beliefs. Ditto has collaborated on a website called “,” which gives feedback to its users about their moral beliefs, and how they prioritize them. Very liberal individuals tend to have a two-factor morality, rating harm and fairness as more relevant to them than ingroup, authority, or purity. On the other hand, very conservative people are almost equally concerned about all five of these moral issues. Ditto’s research has found that if an individual believes that political issues such as the death penalty and embryonic stem cell research have a high inherent immorality, then that individual will also believe that these practices have decreased benefits and increased costs. Ditto discusses how many people who define themselves as “more informed” about politics tend to show greater bias on how morality affects their factual beliefs. Ditto encourages people to stand up for their principles, despite the costs.

Charlton McIlwain, Associate Professor of Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University, presents on the topic of racializing immigration discourse and policy. McIlwain discusses how both public policy and public opinion have a bearing on policy rhetoric. In the media, racialized language and imagery used to frame immigration influence the way the public views immigrants in the United States. Imagery often portrays Mexican immigrants as dangerous, as a threat to our country. As a result, McIlwain discusses the prevalence of terms like “illegal,” “race,” and “us versus them” in poll questions about immigration in the past six years. McIlwain draws a connection between these negative terms and how immigration is framed in policymaking.

John R. Hibbing, Professor of Political Science at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, discusses his research on the biological and psychological differences between liberals and conservatives and voters and non-voters. Hibbing defines certain psychological differences that correlate with political beliefs. Conservatives are hard categorizers; they like to fit objects and issues into the categories provided, regardless of whether a good fit exists, while liberals are soft categorizers, who ask for additional categories. Hibbing shows how conservatives perform better in an eye gaze test that involves a distraction, concluding that conservatives are less easily swayed, while liberals are often influenced by others around them. Hibbing’s research has found physiologically differences between conservatives and liberals in terms of skin conductance, in addition to differences in baseline cortisol levels in frequent voters versus infrequent voters.

Todd Rogers, Assistant Professor of Public Policy at Harvard University, presents his research on the behavioral psychology of voting. Rogers explains that terminology and statements used to mobilize voters is ineffective. The problem lies with failing to create a “voting plan.” An emphasis on high turnout is efficient in making people think that “everybody is doing it.” Rogers discusses surveys that focus on voter identity, asking questions that assert an individual’s distinctiveness as a voter. Rogers also underlines the effectiveness of developing a social contract – reminding individuals of their promise to vote, as well as including language that suggests to readers that they will be held accountable for voting because they may be called after the election to “discuss their experience at the polls.”

Click here to return to the events menu