Conditional Motivated Reasoning

Date01 March 2017
Published date01 March 2017
Subject MatterArticles
/tmp/tmp-18McCUnJ4knLm5/input 684031PRQXXX10.1177/1065912916684031Political Research QuarterlyDickerson and Ondercin
Political Research Quarterly
2017, Vol. 70(1) 194 –208
Conditional Motivated Reasoning: How
© 2017 University of Utah
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the Local Economy Moderates Partisan
DOI: 10.1177/1065912916684031
Motivations in Economic Perceptions
Bradley T. Dickerson1 and Heather L. Ondercin2
Using motivated reasoning, voters rely on partisanship as a heuristic for evaluating the economy in belief-preserving
ways. Yet recent findings show that these motivations may be restricted by a range of contextual factors. We argue
that partisan motivations in economic perceptions are moderated by the local economic context. As conditions
worsen, a negative information environment leads in-partisans to political ambivalence that reduces confidence in
party cues when evaluating the economy. As conditions improve, the motivation for in-partisans to rely on party
cues is restored. As positive information has been shown to be less influential for opinion formation than negative
information, and out-group members tend to be most prone to motivated reasoning, the economic context should
moderate the political motivations of out-partisans to a lesser extent than in-partisans. A multilevel analysis of the
1980 to 2012 American National Election Studies supplemented with state-level data on unemployment and per
capita disposable income supports this argument. The effects of in-party attachments on economic perceptions are
diminished as economic conditions deteriorate and grow stronger as conditions improve. Moreover, the conditional
effects of economic performance on subjective perceptions are stronger for in-partisans than for out-partisans.
economic voting, motivated reasoning, asymmetry, state economic conditions
The use of partisanship as a cognitive shortcut for making
democracy. A staple in the economic voting literature is
political judgments has been well-documented by schol-
that democratic accountability hinges on the ability of
ars of public opinion and political psychology (Bartels
voters to evaluate the economy independently of their
2000; Campbell et al. 1960; Goren 2005; Rahn 1993;
prior political beliefs. If partisan bias in economic per-
Sniderman 2000; Zaller 1992). Through motivated rea-
ceptions varies across economic contexts, then scholars
soning, citizens tend to process information in ways that
need to take a closer look at contextual effects on public
confirm their prior beliefs while rejecting or counter-
opinion and exercise caution when making generaliza-
arguing information that contradicts those beliefs (Kunda
tions about the quality of democracy.
1990; Lodge and Taber 2000; Lord, Ross, and Lepper
A range of mechanisms have been established that
1979; Nir 2011; Taber and Lodge 2006). Identification
restrict the motivation for citizens to process information
with a partisan group provides a heuristic for processing
in belief-preserving ways. First, political ambivalence—
information in belief-preserving ways with minimum
the possession of competing political considerations—
cognitive effort. One area in which motivated reasoning
has been shown to decrease the confidence provided by
processes have been routinely demonstrated is public
partisanship when evaluating policy-relevant objects
opinion toward the economy; citizens tend to view the
(Basinger and Lavine 2005; Lavine 2001; Lavine,
economy more favorably when they identify with the
Johnston, and Steenbergen 2012). Second, when exposed
incumbent political party (Bartels 2002; Enns, Kellstedt,
consistently to belief-incongruent facts, individuals
and McAvoy 2012; Evans and Andersen 2006; Evans and
Pickup 2010; Gerber and Huber 2010; Wlezien, Franklin,
1Arkansas State University, State University, USA
and Twiggs 1997). But under what conditions might vot-
2University of Mississippi, University, USA
ers become more or less sensitive to partisan motivations
when asked to evaluate the economy? The extent to which
Corresponding Author:
Bradley T. Dickerson, Department of Political Science, Arkansas State
political predispositions shape economic judgment raises
University, HSS 3020, State University, AR 72467, USA.
important implications for the quality of representative

Dickerson and Ondercin
eventually reach a tipping point at which the motivation
supplemented with state-level unemployment and income
to preserve prior beliefs is weakened (Redlawsk, data, we demonstrate that the influence of in-party attach-
Civettini, and Emmerson 2010). Finally, the strength of
ments on economic perceptions is weakest in states with
motivated reasoning processes varies with the direction
rising unemployment. These findings are asymmetrical
of group attachments and the general sentiment of the
for in-partisans and out-partisans, suggesting that out-
information environment. Out-group members tend to be
partisans respond less strongly to objective changes in the
more sensitive to the motivation to preserve prior beliefs
economic environment than in-partisans.
than in-group members (Ditto et al. 1998; Goren,
Federico, and Kittilson 2009), and negative information
Partisan Motivations in Economic
tends to exert a stronger impact on political thought than
positive information (Baumeister et al. 2001; Soroka
2006; Taylor 1991). We extend these findings to argue
The influence of partisanship for the formation of politi-
that the local economic environment can strengthen or
cal judgments can be traced back to the early work of
weaken the motivation for partisans to view the economy
Campbell et al. (1960).1 There remains a strong consen-
in ways congruent with their prior political beliefs.
sus that partisanship is a highly influential force for how
A recent line of research has provided evidence that
individuals perceive the world and form political opin-
the economic context matters for the relationship between
ions (Bartels 2000, 2002; Gerber, Huber, and Washington
political and economic beliefs. The effect of political atti-
2010; Groenendyk 2013; Hetherington 2001; Richard
tudes on perceptions of the economy tends to be weakest
Johnston 2006; Lewis-Beck et al. 2008; Rahn 1993;
during times characterized by national economic crisis
Tilley and Hobolt 2011). Whether grounded in psycho-
(Chzhen, Evans, and Pickup 2014; Dickerson 2016a),
logical attachments formed early in life (Campbell et al.
and the economic beliefs of partisans tend to diverge as
1960; Lewis-Beck et al. 2008) or identities with specific
conditions worsen (Parker-Stephen 2013; Stanig 2013).
social groups (Berelson, Lazarsfeld, and McPhee 1954;
Yet most of these findings either rely strictly on national
Miller and Wlezien 1993), the influence of partisanship
economic data or do not model objective economic con-
on the processing of political information is one of the
ditions at all. To better understand how the economic con-
best-documented findings in political science.
text matters for partisan motivations in economic
The mechanisms through which partisanship shapes
perceptions, the health of the economy needs to be more
political judgment can be found in the psychological lit-
directly modeled. Moreover, national economic perfor-
erature on motivated reasoning. Citizens tend to process
mance represents the aggregation of widely varying local
information in ways that uphold their prior beliefs,
economic environments. As national economic condi-
accepting belief-congruent facts while rejecting or coun-
tions do not vary across individuals, they contribute little
ter-arguing belief-incongruent facts (Kunda 1990; Lodge
to explaining variation in perceptions of the national
and Taber 2000; Lord, Ross, and Lepper 1979; Nir 2011;
economy at a single point in time. If objective perfor-
Rousseau and Snehal 1999). This motivation is also
mance truly matters for how citizens view the economy,
reflected in the tendency for individuals to process more
then the influence of partisanship on economic percep-
quickly and respond more strongly to information that
tions should vary to some degree across more localized
confirms prior beliefs, while taking longer to process
economic contexts.
contradictory information (Lodge and Taber 2005; Morris
We argue that as state-level economic conditions
et al. 2003; Redlawsk 2002). In their review of the psy-
worsen, identification with the incumbent presidential
chological literature on motivated reasoning, Lavine,
party will have less of an impact on economic percep-
Johnston, and Steenbergen (2012, 27–29) describe three
tions. As in-partisans are consistently exposed to a nega-
goals that guide human reasoning and cognition: effi-
tive economic environment, they lose confidence in their
ciency, accuracy, and belief perseverance. First, people
partisanship as a cue for forming economic opinions. As
want to be efficient when processing information and
conditions improve, in-partisans should become more
making decisions—that is, they wish to preserve as many
strongly motivated to evaluate the economy in terms of
cognitive resources as possible. Second, while expending
their partisan identities. However, out-group members
as little cognitive effort...

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