Media, Information and Representation

This area of research grew out of a long-standing interest in field experimentation. As described below, I have completed one project and have another one in progress. I am welcome to proposals for collaborations in this area. Separate from the empirical work, David Broockman and I have a more accessible piece giving an overview of the random assignment approach we (each working separately) developed.

What Makes Us Click? Demonstrating Incentives for Angry Rhetoric with Digital-Age Field Experiments

Timothy J. Ryan

Journal of Politics 74(4) 1138-1152.

There is substantial evidence that political actors can incorporate emotional content into their messages with an eye toward evoking politically relevant behaviors. In particular, many studies highlight anxiety as effective in eliciting interest and information seeking. This finding raises the question of why many appeals seem geared to evoke not anxiety, but rather anger. I point to reasons why anger might evoke information seeking under at least some conditions. Then, in a new type of field experiment, I induce feelings of anger and anxiety and passively measure the effects on information seeking. Across three studies, I find anger, evoked alone, to increase information seeking to a large degree – substantially increasing web users’ proclivity to click through to a political website. The results suggest that anger can engage and speak to psychological incentives for political communication, under some conditions, to employ angry rhetoric.

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Replication files: Local or Harvard Dataverse

Supplementary Information

Preaching to the Choir: Americans Prefer Communicating to Copartisan Elected Officials

David E. Broockman and Timothy J. Ryan

Past work suggests that partisan attachments isolate citizens from encountering elite messages contrary to their points of view. Here, we present evidence that partisan attachments not only serve to filter the information citizens receive from political elites; they also work in the other direction, isolating politicians from encountering contrary perspectives from citizens. We hypothesized that Americans prefer expressing their opinions to politicians who share their party identification and avoid contacting outpartisan politicians. Three studies—drawing on a mixture of observational, field experimental, and natural experimental approaches—support this hypothesis. Citizens prefer to “preach to the choir,” contacting legislators likely to already agree with them. In light of evidence that contact from citizens powerfully affects politicians’ stances and priorities, these findings suggest important ramifications. They suggest a feedback loop that might aggravate political polarization, and help explain how politicians of different parties could develop different perceptions of the same constituencies.

Manuscript PDF

Gaffe Appeal: A Field Experiment on Partisan Selective Exposure to Election Messages

Timothy J. Ryan and Ted Brader

The possibility that citizens expose themselves to information in biased ways—so-called selective exposure—is increasingly important in a high-choice media environment, but evidence for the idea that citizens prefer attitude-consistent information is notably mixed. Methodological challenges likely contribute to the inconclusive nature of findings, as researchers face trade-offs between the artificiality of lab environments and the difficult-to-disentangle confounds of observational analysis. We improve understanding of selective exposure in two ways. First, we consider how message aspects other than attitude-consistency affect exposure decisions. Second, we study selective exposure with an innovative field experiment that addresses weaknesses of other approaches. Our results allow us to reach more confident conclusions about the prevalence of motivated selective exposure, and help to illuminate underpinnings of the oft-lamented tendency for campaign media to focus on personalities and candidate miscues rather than substantive policy differences.

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