Date of Degree

2-2014

Document Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Ph.D.

Program

Psychology

Advisor(s)

Paul Wachtel

Subject Categories

Clinical Psychology | Psychology | Social Psychology

Abstract

This dissertation project focused on affective and unconscious processes involved in the evaluation of public policy. It follows recent scholarship in political psychology showing how the response to political messages depends greatly on what values and emotions are evoked. Of particular focus has been the notable discrepancy between the conscious way people construe their political judgments and the unconscious operations that more truly account for their views and actions. Motivated by a neuroscientific and psychoanalytic model of the mind and brain that recognizes both the pre-eminence of unconscious (implicit) processing and the primacy of affect in mind (brain) activity, this study investigated the impact of emotionally-valenced introductory sentences on judgments of public policy. A cross-sectional New York City sample of 367 English-speaking adults completed anonymous questionnaires, in which they evaluated written statements by hypothetical candidates for public office. Political messages pertained to issues of energy and immigration reform, and varied only in the emotional quality of their introductory sentences; identical policy statements were either preceded by a values-based, affective introduction or by a parallel, non-affective introduction composed of bland verbiage. The hypothesis that the emotionally evocative introductory sentences would operate in a generalized way in persons across the political spectrum, by amplifying message ratings, was not borne out by the data. Rather, results indicated relevant differences in the impact of the affective introductions, associated with issue, policy condition and, most notably, political party. Differential, and often opposite, effects of the introductory language were seen, depending on participants' political persuasion. Magnitudes of effect, when detected, were moderate to large, suggesting a practical significance to these differences. Noteworthy patterns also emerged with regard to order of message presentation, highlighting the import of contrast in the evaluative process. Implications of these findings will be discussed in relation to the premise that affective factors are the principal driver of human behavior and decision-making. Future research should include a more sensitive assessment of initial attitude towards each policy, and should utilize methodology that can more conclusively answer questions regarding the nature of the unconscious aspects of affect in the evaluative process.

 
 

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