Does Familiarity Breed Esteem? A Field Experiment on Emergent Attitudes Toward Members of Congress

Published date01 March 2023
Date01 March 2023
Subject MatterArticles
Political Research Quarterly
2023, Vol. 76(1) 173185
© The Author(s) 2022
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/10659129211073910
Does Familiarity Breed Esteem? A Field
Experiment on Emergent Attitudes
Toward Members of Congress
Kevin M. Esterling
, William Minozzi
and Michael A. Neblo
Canonical theories of democratic representation envision legislators cultivating familiarity to enhance esteem among
their constituents. Some scholars, however, argue that familiarity breeds contempt, which if true would undermine
incentives for effective representation. Survey respondents who are unfamiliar with their legislator tend not to provide
substantive answers to attitude questions, and so we are missing key evidence necessary to adjudicate this important
debate. We solve this problem with a randomized f‌ield experiment that gave some constituen ts an opportunity to gain
familiarity with their Member of Congress through an online Deliberative Town Hall. Relative to controls, respondents
who interacted with their member reported higher esteem as a result of enhanced familiarity, a mediation effect support ing
canonical theories of representation. This effect is statistically signif‌icant among constituents who are the same political
party as the member but not among those of the opposite party, although in neither case did familiarity breed contempt.
representation, familiarity, survey research, causal mediation
In modern democracies, representation and accountability
depend on two crucialyet potentially conf‌licting
features of constituent attitudes: familiarity and esteem.
Constituents must be familiar with off‌iceholders to hold
them accountable for their actions (Arnold, 1990;Grant
and Rudolph, 2004). Simultaneously, the drive to be
esteemedthat is, to be held in higher regard, ref‌lected in
higher trust, approval and warmer feelings among
constituentsis essential to incentivize faithful repre-
sentation (Fenno, 1978;Madison, 1961). Some scholars
worry these two elements are incompatiblethat familiarity,
as the saying goes, breeds contempt (Brady and Theriault
2001;Hibbing 2002;seeMondak et al. 2007,35).Ifthat
were the case, representatives might be reluctant to become
more familiar to wide swaths of their constituents, con-
tributing to the persistent dearth of knowledge about elected
off‌icials, and damaging canonical accounts of democratic
representation (Mansbridge, 2003;Pitkin, 1967).
The idea that familiarity breeds contempt is not un-
contested in the scholarly literature, however. Prominent
studies of the U.S. Congress suggest that, as constituents
learn more about their member of Congress (MC), they
also like them more (Alvarez, 1997;Fenno, 1978;Fiorina
et al., 1987). Indeed, even though Americans routinely
report low approval of Congress as an institution, they
also typically report much higher approval of their own
MCa well-established f‌inding known as the Paradox of
Congressional Support (Lammers et al., 2021). Thus, it
could be that individual MCs do not face the tradeoff
between familiarity and esteem suggested by other em-
pirical accounts.
Scholars have had trouble resolving this debate be-
cause unfamiliarity presents a diff‌icult measurement
problem. Esteem is typically measured with survey items
such as approval of and trust in the member. Constituents
who are unfamiliar with their representative are more
likely to skip such questions or select a Dont Know
(DK) response. Because of this, our understanding of
whether Americans typically love or typically despise
their MC is based on incomplete information. Drawing
Public Policy and Political Science, UC Riverside, Riverside, CA, USA
Political Science, Ohio State University, Columbus, OH, USA
Corresponding Author:
Kevin M. Esterling, Public Policy and Political Science, UC Riverside,
900 University Ave, Riverside, CA 92521, USA.

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