What Difference Does (In)Civility Make? (Part 1)

by John Sides on January 19, 2011 · 7 comments

in Political science,Public opinion

The call for civility is all around, and members of Congress appear willing to act on it, even if only in symbolic ways. Does it matter if political figures act civilly or uncivilly? I’ll tackle that question in two parts, drawing on political science research that focuses on the effects of incivility on citizens.

One natural expectation is that incivility turns citizens off from politics—rendering them more alienated and less trusting of government. In this study (pdf; previous post), Diana Mutz and Byron Reeves tested this hypothesis via an interesting experiment. Subjects were exposed to a mock political debate between two candidates—one that was professionally staged and produced using trained actors. The experimental manipulation was whether the candidates used civil or uncivil language. Otherwise, the script for the debate was the same.

…in the civil version the candidates went to extremes to be polite to the opposition, inserting phrases such as “I’m really glad Bob raised the issue of . . .” and “I don’t disagree with all of your points, Bob, but . . .” before calmly making their own positions clear. Both candidates fully observed the interpersonal norms for civility in expressing their waiting patiently while the other person answered and by paying attention to the opponent while he was speaking.

bq, In the uncivil version of these exchanges, the candidates used the same script but inserted gratuitous asides that suggested a lack of respect for and/or frustration with the opposition. Sample statements include comments such as “You’re really missing the point here Neil” and “What Bob is completely overlooking is. . . . ” The candidates also raised their voices and never apologized for interrupting one another. Nonverbal cues such as rolling of the eyes and rueful shaking of the head from side to side were also used to suggest lack of respect for what the opponent was saying. Voices were raised when conflict intensified, in contrast to the persistently calm voices of the candidates in the civil version.

Of course, this is only one species of incivility. It is certainly milder than this fax to Bart Stupak. But it mimics the garden-variety incivility in many political settings.

Mutz and Reeves found that the uncivil exchange was actually perceived as such (suggesting that the treatment “worked”), increased physiological arousal (as measured with a skin conductance test), and, most importantly, decreased trust in government. They conclude:

The results of these experiments show that uncivil political discourse has detrimental effects on political trust. Not only were attitudes toward politicians and Congress affected, but levels of support for the institutions of government themselves also were influenced. Importantly, these effects occurred even though the extent of substantive disagreement/political conflict was held constant.

Case closed, right? Not quite. As Mutz and Reeves acknowledge, their experiment, like any experiment, doesn’t mirror the “real world” in every respect. One discrepancy: in real life, people aren’t randomly assigned to watch political incivility. If they see it, they often choose to do so. And if the people who choose to watch it are not particularly sensitive to incivility, then incivility might not affect trust very much. Mutz and Reeves’ results point in that direction. For example, they found that people who had little inclination to avoid conflict experienced no significant decline in trust.

Another study (pdf; previous post) by Kevin Arceneaux and Martin Johnson is even more relevant. Arceneaux and Johnson set up an experiment in which respondents watched no television, were forced to watch a 10-minute clip containing political incivility, or were given the choice of what to watch: the uncivil political television or non-political programming that was itself fairly civil.

In one experiment, the uncivil programming consisted of a composite of clips from “Hannity and Colmes” and the alternatives were “Overhaulin’” (a TLC program) and “The 50 Cutest Child Stars All Grown Up” (an E! program). In a second experiment, the uncivil clip came from “Hardball” and the alternatives were “The Dog Whisperer” and “Dhani Tackles the Globe.”

Naturally, the “Hannity and Colmes” and “Hardball” clips featured many of the uncivil behaviors seen in the Mutz and Reeves experimental treatment. (Although this didn’t stop people from watching. For example, subjects given the choice of what to watch actually watched an average of 5 minutes and 22 seconds of “Hannity and Colmes,” with a range of 8 seconds to 10 minutes.)

The question is whether the effect of watching “Hannity and Colmes” or “Hardball” on political trust disappears when people get to choose what to watch. This might occur if, for instance, people who have little tolerance for political incivility instead check in to see what Webster is up to these days or how Cesar is going to get that terrier to shut its yap.

That is precisely what Arceneaux and Johnson found. Subjects who were forced to watch political incivility became less trusting of government, just as in the Mutz and Reeves study. But subjects given the choice of what to watch did not become less trusting, even though some of them did watch episodes of political incivility. Here is a pithy summary:

Uncivil exchanges in political debate shows do not diminish trust in public officials and government institutions among those who choose to watch them. (emphasis in original)

This is the crucial point. If politicians suddenly decide to be more civil, it might have little effect on whether people trust politicians or the government. Those who would be turned off by continued incivility probably weren’t paying much attention to politics to begin with. And those that do pay attention aren’t that sensitive to incivility anyway.

Part 2 of this mini-series will look at incivility in campaign advertising.

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