Effects of “In-Your-Face” Television Discourse on Perceptions of a Legitimate Opposition

This is a review of Effects of “In-Your-Face” Television Discourse on Perceptions of a Legitimate Opposition (2007) by Diana C. Mutz. American Political Science Review 101 (November): 621-636. You can find the original in Google Scholar.

Why can some Americans agree to disagree with their “worthy opposition” while others dismiss their political opponents as irrational lunatics?

Do we truly believe that ALL red-state residents are ignorant racist fascist knuckle-dragging NASCAR-obsessed cousin-marrying road-kill-eating tobacco-juice-dribbling gun-fondling religious fanatic rednecks; or that ALL blue-state residents are godless unpatriotic pierced-nose Volvo-driving France-loving left-wing Communist latte-sucking tofu-chomping holistic-wacko neurotic vegan weenie perverts?1

With that opening quotation from Dave Barry, Mutz introduces her central question: How do Americans form their opinions about their political opponents? Why can some Americans agree to disagree with their “worthy opposition” while others dismiss their political opponents as irrational lunatics?2 Numerous previous studies have asked how Americans form their personal political preferences, but Mutz asks a new question. To answer it, Mutz looks carefully at the effects of political television.

In carefully crafted experiments, Mutz examines the effects of two features of political television: Its use of extreme closeups on a speaker’s face rather than on more comfortable upper-body shots, and its tendency to broadcast uncivil shouting matches instead of civil debates. Her experiments feature two actors posing as Congressional candidates, with their debate filmed twice: Both use the same script, but the uncivil one adds rude body language (eyerolling) and sarcastic asides (“You have completely missed the point here!”). Both are filmed simultaneously from both close-up and medium camera perspectives, resulting in a 2×2 treatment matrix.

As it turns out, these two variables interact to influence our attitudes about whichever “candidate” we disagree with. Mutz arrives at three primary conclusions:

  1. Incivility and extreme closeups increase viewer arousal (i.e. attention and excitement).
  2. In turn, increased arousal improves viewers’ recollection of the two actors’ policy arguments.
  3. However, viewers had a much more negative opinion of the opposition actor if they saw the uncivil, close-in version of the debate. By contrast, seeing the civil, close-in version actually increased perceptions of opposition legitimacy relative to the control.

Thus, it appears that television could be used to increase Americans’ perceptions of their opponents, even if it doesn’t change their policy positions. For this to happen, television producers would need to show intimate (close-up) video of civil discussions. More frequently, however, we see close-up video of uncivil disputes, which has exactly the opposite effect; this effect may explain some of the recent increase in American political polarization.

These conclusions are subject to some interactions and qualifiers. Read on.

Place in the Literature

Mutz relies on previous psychological and sociological studies about personal space and arousal. However, her study could also fit into several other literatures that she alludes to with greater or lesser specificity. Most obviously, Mutz’s work fits into the literature on negative campaign advertising, although she does little to make this connection. Some studies (notably those from Ansolabehere and Iyengar) have argued that negative advertising engenders distrust and disgust among the electorate. By contrast, others have argued that negative advertising is a good thing, given that voters can glean valuable information from it (see Freedman et al. 2004). Mutz’s second and third conclusions (above) may help rectify these two positions.

Theoretical Argument

Most citizens have little reason to spend time learning about political candidates, an insight dating back to Downs (1957). However, they can rely on people or groups that they trust as “shortcuts” to acquiring the information they need (see Berelson et al. 1954, Lupia and McCubbins 1998, Page et al. 1987, and Popkin 1994).

In modern politics, televised political discourse serves as one such information shortcut. Voters can watch others engage in political debates rather than engage in them themselves. However, televised political discourse departs in two major ways from normal human discourse. First, camera angles tend to be extremely close-up–much closer than we could comfortably stand to somebody. Second, pundits are far less civil than we normally are to one another.

Previous research has told us a few things about in-your-face and uncivil interaction. First, incivility increases arousal (and attention): “Anything less is too boring to attract the attention of television audiences.” But it also rubs viewers the wrong way. Second, extreme closeness tends to magnify whatever we feel about the person we are close to; if somebody you dislike stands very close to you, you will dislike them even less.

Given these two facts, televised discourse could either increase or decrease viewers’ feelings about the opposition’s legitimacy. Mutz gives three specific hypotheses:

  1. Extreme close-ups and incivility will both increase emotional arousal in viewers.
  2. This increased arousal will increase how well viewers recall arguments that debate participants make.
  3. Extreme close-ups will interact with incivility; “close-up camera perspectives will intensify viewers’ reactions to opposition political arguments and candidates.”

Note that the latter two hypotheses are not interesting unless the first hypothesis is correct.

Experimental Evidence

Adult volunteers watch a televised debate between two candidates in an open race for Congress in a distant state

In reality, the candidates are paid actors. They film their debate twice, using the same script both times, but in one version, they behave less civilly (rolling their eyes, interjecting comments like “You have completely missed the point here!”, and so on). Each of the two versions was shot simultaneously from both a close-up and a medium zoom. Thus, volunteers see one of four versions: Close-up/civil, close-up/uncivil, medium/civil, medium/uncivil.

Participants take a pre-test to assess their views. The previously recorded debate includes policy statements about eight separate issue areas. Mutz is primarily interested in how participants react to the “candidate” whose positions differ from the participant’s.

Experiment 1, Hypothesis 1

Using a subset of participants, experiment 1 is used to test hypothesis 1. As expected, emotional arousal (as measured by skin conductance levels) varies significantly across the four conditions. From greatest to least arousal, these is how the conditions were ranked:

  1. Uncivil close-up
  2. Uncivil medium
  3. Civil close-up
  4. Civil medium

This result confirms hypothesis 1.

Experiment 2, Hypothesis 2

In experiment 2, participants filled out a post-viewing questionnaire asking them to list all the arguments they could remember for each side of the debate. The purpose was to test hypothesis 2.

Incivility and extreme close-ups interacted. Viewers exposed to both remembered significantly more opposition arguments than viewers in the other groups.

Experiment 2, Hypothesis 3

Also in experiment 2, participants indicated on feeling thermometers their feelings toward each candidate. Mutz examines viewer polarization–that is, the difference in affect towards the preferred and opposition candidate.

Again, there was an interaction. For viewers who saw the medium-zoom, civility made no difference. But for viewers who saw the close-up version, civility decreased polarization while incivility increased it.

Mutz repeats this analysis with a different measure of opposition legitimacy: Each viewer’s evaluation of the strength of each candidate’s arguments. The same results obtained.

Final Comments

Mutz uses sound experimental methods. As with any experiment, it’s never clear how much these results translate into the real world. Still, I like this study, both for its interesting research question and its persuasive results. I would like to see these insights applied more directly to campaign advertising. Do campaign advertisers use these tactics? If so, we would expect to see close-up shots of the candidate’s opponent behaving uncivilly contrasted with close-up shots of the candidate smiling and behaving well. Presumably, this approach would increase animus toward the opponent among the candidate’s existing supporters, while decreasing dislike of the candidate among the opponent’s supporters.

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