Studying How Citizens Make Political Decisions

A Conversation with Dr. Myiah Hutchens of the School of Journalism by Alison Dorf, Student Science Journalist

For scholars of U.S. politics, the tempo of research peaks during election season. As Americans decide which presidential candidate will best lead the country, Dr. Myiah Hutchens is studying how citizens make decisions and engage in political conversations. Hutchens recently joined the School of Journalism as an assistant professor. What follows is an interview with this scholar.

What’s the difference between like-minded and unlike-minded discussion networks in the political world?
The vast majority of people have access to two types of individuals in their political networks—those they agree with, or like-minded discussion partners, and those they disagree with, or unlike-minded discussion partners. I study how the mix of views in an individual’s networks influences the way people act and what they know. The takeaway is that individuals who have more like-minded discussion partners in their networks tend to participate in politics more, while individuals who have more diverse views in their networks tend to be more knowledgeable about politics. 

How do people’s attitudes affect their political decisions?
We know that attitudes toward candidates are very important when it comes to participating in politics. People who are more enthusiastic or have more positive attitudes toward their candidate of choice are much more likely to vote. Right now, I’m in the middle of a project that’s looking at whether the gap between people’s desired attitude and their actual attitude predicts biased information-seeking. For example, I might wish that I liked cake less, so my desired attitude is anti-sweets, but my actual attitude is that I really like sweets. When that gap exists in my attitude about a candidate, does that change how I look for information? My co-author and I argue that it probably does. We hypothesize that individuals who are less positive about their preferred candidate than they would like to be will seek out more information that’s likely to bolster their actual attitude. They will talk more to discussion partners that favor their candidate and spend more time with partisan media sources that are more likely to be positive toward their candidate.

What parts of your research are you most excited about?
I’m excited about all of it. That’s the best deal about this job. I spend half my days following what I think is interesting. Especially right now, being a political communications scholar during election time, I just get extra geeky.

What’s the most far-reaching finding you’ve made?
The project I’m working on right now has the most practical application. I’m looking at how to best facilitate public deliberations, both through the materials we give people before they deliberate and how we set up the deliberation groups. I’m working on this project through a National Science Foundation grant with a research team at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. 

What’s next in your research?
I just applied with my research team in Nebraska for funding to extend the deliberation research. We’ve been working on deliberations about nanotechnology policy, and we applied to study virology policy, such as the HPV vaccine. I also want to do some experiments about how people process information. Looking at survey data, I’ve found that to seek out diverse information, you need to be both anxious (thinking there’s some sort of problem) and believing you're efficacious (your voice matters). I need to make sure that I find this relationship in experimental studies. Otherwise, you could argue that being exposed to diverse information causes you to be anxious and efficacious.

What are your goals here at the University of Arizona?
This is where I plan on retiring.

So you like it here?
Yes. My partner is also an academic, and he’s in the Department of Communication. Having two jobs at the same place is very important, and we both really like the university and Tucson.

As a professor, what's the most creative technique you use when teaching?
I’m teaching News in the Digital Age, which is a 200-student general education course. The hardest thing with classes like that is being seen as approachable. I try to have a lot of interactive elements, such as using clickers to encourage students to pay attention.

Do you fuel a lot of discussions?
I warn students that my classrooms are free speech zones. I hope at some point during the semester that they offend someone, and I hope in turn that they are also offended. I think it’s important to not be afraid to say what you think.

What advice would you give students about conducting their own research?
Find something you’re excited about. Don’t do something just because it’s what you think you should do or because it’s the hot topic.

Published Date: 

10/24/2012 - 21:08

Photo Credits: 

Photo by Josh Morgan

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