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Award Abstract #1264275

Doctoral Dissertation Research in Political Science: What Makes Politics Interesting?

Divn Of Social and Economic Sciences
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Initial Amendment Date: March 5, 2013
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Latest Amendment Date: March 5, 2013
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Award Number: 1264275
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Award Instrument: Standard Grant
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Program Manager: Lee Walker
SES Divn Of Social and Economic Sciences
SBE Direct For Social, Behav & Economic Scie
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Start Date: March 1, 2013
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End Date: February 28, 2015 (Estimated)
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Awarded Amount to Date: $20,862.00
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Investigator(s): Randolph Stevenson stevenso@ruf.rice.edu (Principal Investigator)
Seonghui Lee (Co-Principal Investigator)
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Sponsor: William Marsh Rice University
6100 MAIN ST
Houston, TX 77005-1827 (713)348-4820
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Program Reference Code(s): 9179, SMET
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Program Element Code(s): 1371


Intellectual Merit

This dissertation project extends appraisal models of interest developed in psychology to understand individual differences in political interest and knowledge. It is a first step in a larger collaborative effort to develop a comparative theory of political interest that explains why political interest and knowledge vary so dramatically across the Western Democracies.

Theoretically, this research takes the view that long-term interests are developed in a series of discrete emotional experiences in which individuals learn what does and does not interest them. For the development of political interests, the sequence of relevant experiences is the reception of political messages, almost always (directly or indirectly) generated by the mass media. Thus, to answer the question of why some individuals are interested in politics and some are not, one must first answer the question of why an individual is (or is not) interested in particular political messages. This study argues that this is a function of an interaction between characteristics of the individual and of the message, and that we can understand the nature of that interaction by applying appraisal theories of interest that have been developed in psychology.

Appraisal models of emotions assert that individuals experience an emotion only after they (consciously or subconsciously) appraise events as matching a particular abstract structure. Upon making the appropriate set of appraisals, the corresponding emotion "fires." Thus, appraisal theorists are principally concerned with defining the appraisal structure associated with a specific emotion, and designing experiments to test whether all the elements of the proposed structure are necessary and sufficient to provoke the relevant emotional response. For interest, the leading model of the appraisal structure of interest (due to Silvia) posits two appraisal dimensions that determine whether the event or object is interesting: a collative dimension (the appraised novelty, complexity, uncertainty, and conflictualness of the event) and a coping potential or comprehensibility dimension, which is an individual's appraisal of her ability to understand the event. These dimensions indicate how a person may orient herself to an event or object both cognitively and emotionally.

The main contribution of the dissertation is to explore whether this appraisal structure of interest applies to political interest, as well as to propose and explore one important extension of it that is more useful in politics (where it is often costly to get information): an explicit incorporation of information short-cuts or heuristics into the theory.

Empirically, the dissertation proposes a new experimental platform for evaluating the appraisal structure of interest that should be both more powerful (more efficiently generates relevant observations) than previous designs and more applicable to a wider set of substantive domains. These experiments will allow us to rigorously test hypotheses drawn from the theory and understand if the appraisal theory of interest will be useful in better understanding individual variation in political interest.

Broader Impacts

This study will not only contribute the literature in political science on political interest, but also to those studying appraisal models of emotion more generally, via the inclusion of heuristics. Beyond academia, the results should be of interest to political campaigns and other civic programs that seek to understand how to activate politically interest.


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