I am a postdoctoral researcher at the Mind Brain Behavior Interfaculty Initiative and the Government Department at Harvard University.
My dissertation project focuses on the empirical effects of deliberative democracy. I address two open questions in the deliberative democracy literature. First, what are the effects of deliberation on real-world policymaking, and second what are the benefits to the deliberators? While some deliberative studies look at the effects of deliberation on those that participate, much less is known about how deliberative democracy can actually affect political decisions. To that end, in my first chapter I conduct case studies of two large deliberative programs leveraging participant and non-participant observation, survey, and interview research methods, and find that deliberative programs can significantly affect policymaking and influence key stakeholders. I also highlight best- and worst-practices and provide guidelines for other researchers and practitioners to design their own deliberative programs. These case studies also suggested that more open deliberative discussion might lead to more sophisticated thinking and problem-solving, but that more regulated deliberative discussion might lead to more accurate political knowledge, which seems to comport with deliberative scholarship, but hadn’t been directly tested. Thus, for my second dissertation chapter, I ran a large laboratory experiment comparing deliberative discussion with access to an expert to one-on-one engagement with an expert only, and found that the expert-only groups completely outperformed the open deliberation groups on measures of political knowledge, sophistication, and efficacy. Given the counterintuitive nature of these results, for my third dissertation chapter I conducted confirmatory qualitative interview research of participants in real-world deliberative programs, which not only supported my experimental findings, but also shows that a “wisdom of the multitude” can account for some past deliberative research reporting increases in political sophistication. In other words, deliberators don’t become more sophisticated as a result of deliberation, but groups of deliberators are more likely to come up with sophisticated solutions to policy problems as a result of broad experience and training.
Given the results of my dissertation, my current research projects attempt to study strategies for political communication from a different perspective: social identity. The first seeks to address increasing political polarization and the concomitant rise in interparty discrimination and hostility. Social identity theory posits that individuals obtain their esteem from the groups they belong to. Members have a strong bias in favor of in-group members and animosity or outright discrimination against out-group members. As these groups become more distinct, it becomes easier for in-group members to discriminate against outgroup members. Clear out-group members are likely to be considered untrustworthy and assume counter-partisans have vicious motivations. These effects are more pronounced in groups that are competitive and when they disagree on moral issues – the latter being one of the few instances when out-group hate can match or exceed in-group love – and both competition and morality are highly salient aspects of American politics. As polarization increases, political identities become more salient, which leads to more discrimination, and because of the competitive and moralistic nature of American politics, a demonization of counter-partisans. This also leads to withdrawal and distrust, and makes meaningful communication exceedingly difficult.
My first project seeks to test a potential remedy to this downward spiral. Via a process similar to the dilution effect, I propose to conduct a series of experiments where I vary signaling partisan and non-partisan identity cues as well as non-identity cues to determine whether the salience of party identification, and the resultant difficulties it brings to political communication, can be reduced. Because party identification creates a perfect storm of outgroup animosity, distrust, and non-cooperation, I hypothesize that specifically diluting political identity will reduce intergroup animosity more so than other types of personal knowledge, including those commonly leveraged to dilute perceptions. This project represents a first step in developing a theory of Identity Dilution.
My second project seeks to leverage theories of role formation in the sociological literature to test communication strategies that may decrease intergroup differentiation. Group members who think outgroup members are more dissimilar from them will be more inclined to distrust and discriminate against them. One way that this can happen is if outgroup members use labeling to differentiate themselves. Theoretical work in the symbolic interactionism literature suggests that the very process of labeling can reify an identity in another. When these identity labels are judgmental, it serves to separate the accuser from the accused. This can have counter-intuitive results if the labeler is intending to change the behavior of those they label. For example, I hypothesize that labeling someone as a racist will lead to entrenchment and differentiation much more than labeling a behavior as racist. Saying a behavior is problematic is less personal, it doesn’t create a role, and theoretically should be more likely to lead to a change in the perceived problematic behavior than saying a person is problematic.
Both of my current projects are responding to a massive breakdown in political communication in America (and elsewhere). There are many reasons people are talking past each other, discounting the words of their peers, and becoming enraged. Leveraging social identity has much potential to help reverse this course.