Framing Public Opinion in Competitive Democracies

This is a review of Framing Public Opinion in Competitive Democracies (2007) by Dennis Chong and James N. Druckman. American Political Science Review 101 (November): 637-656. You can find the original in Google Scholar.

The public wouldn’t get the policies it wants; it would get the policies it was duped into wanting.

In a democracy, politicians and policy outcomes should be responsive to changes in public opinion. But what if politicians (or others, such as media commentators) were able to manipulate public opinion through propaganda or other, more subtle methods? We might appear on the surface to have democracy, but it would be a farce. The public wouldn’t get the policies it wants; it would get the policies it was duped into wanting.

Political scientists have fretted over that possibility for decades. The first major findings found that mass media had “minimal effects” on public opinion.1 More recently, scholars have found that political communications can influence opinion in a few ways. Of particular importance for this study, some scholars have reported that politicians and mass media can influence public opinion by choosing how to frame a story. Is protecting rainforests about indigenous rights or environmental concerns?2 Are urban growth limits about protecting greenbelts or attracting greenbacks?3

Chong and Druckman’s argument, in essence, is that previous studies have used methodologies that exaggerate the real-world importance of framing. Overwhelmingly, previous experiments have tested the effect of exposing people to a single frame (on one side of the issue) or none at all (the control group). These studies have found strong framing effects.

By contrast, Chong and Druckman develop two frames–one strong, one weak–on each side of their chosen issues, for a total of four frames.4 They randomly assign participants to receive some combination of these frames (or, in the control group, none of them). Some receive two frames on one side of the issue; some receive a strong frame on one side, a weak frame on the other side; some receive only a single frame; and some receive both frames on one side and one on the other.

This setup mirrors real political life more closely than the single-frame studies published previously, since real politics involve multiple actors seeking to promote their view. The most interesting and important conclusions:

  • Strong frames move opinion significantly. Weak frames generally did not, with some exceptions.
  • A weak frame one one side opposed by a strong frame on the other produced a contrast effect; that is, respondents moved even closer to the strong frame’s view than if they had been exposed to only the strong frame. This effect was most pronounced among politically informed participants.
  • Competition between strong opposing frames has a moderating effect. Rather than reject the frame that discords with the respondent’s prior views, embracing only the concordant frame, the two frames interacted to pull respondents toward an intermediate position.

The latter conclusion interested me most. With most contentious issues, there are at least two strong frames competing for recognition. In fact, the presence of two strong frames may be what makes an issue contentious in the first place. Studies that explore the effects of only a single frame, rather than examining competing frames, will therefore overstate the importance of frames.

This conclusion about moderation runs contrary to other recent research about polarization. In a literature summarized in Farhad Manjoo’s True Enough5, other researchers have found that experiment participants will tend to accept uncritically arguments in favor of their prior view, while searching carefully for flaws in opposing arguments. It is unclear why Chong and Druckman found opposite results.

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