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Reasoning Across the Divide: Interpersonal Deliberation, Emotions and Reflective Political Reasoning

One of the biggest challenges facing contemporary democracies is that when making political judgements, most citizens do not engage in reflective political reasoning. Research finds that people’s political reasoning is distorted by a range of cognitive biases and constraints. When faced with opposing information, most people have tendency to neglect it and cling to their prior attitudes. People’s emotional attachment to their favored political party makes them support their party and endorse party positions, irrespective of whether these positions reflect citizens’ policy preferences or not.

The normative models of political reasoning, however, assume that citizens are willing to lay aside their prior beliefs by considering diverse and opposing perspectives about the candidates and issues, and integrate these perspectives in their reasoning processes, before arriving at political judgements. How to bridge this inconsistency between the normative expectations and the reality?

The broader argument of this thesis is that well-documented biases in human political reasoning are not indicative of inherent human limitations, but rather of deficiencies in political institutional arrangements. When motivated, it argues, citizens are capable of engaging in reflective political reasoning. How to motivate citizens to think reflectively about politics? This is the research question at the heart of this dissertation.

To respond to this question, this thesis bridges democratic theory, in particular, deliberative democratic theory with the insights from social psychology. Theoretically, this dissertation makes a novel argument about the potential of one discrete emotion – emotion for the other – in motivating more reflective political thinking in citizens. It argues that when citizens are encouraged to imagine the world from different other’s vantage point, they are able to lay aside their egocentric political thinking and engage in a type of reasoning which is other-regarding. I further argue that  interpersonal deliberation – discussing political issues with different others – has the potential for creating a fertile political environment, capable of evoking empathy for the other in citizens. Methodologically, the dissertation applies a mixed-methods research design integrating experimental and survey data with the qualitative in-depth interview data. The thesis builds on real-world and hypothetical examples of political decision making. 

The dissertation consists of two parts. Part I consists of five chapters (introduction, theoretical framework, research design, summary of empirical studies and conclusion), and Part II encompasses six articles that constitute the analytical core of this thesis. Theoretical framework (Chapter 2) lays out the theory guiding this dissertation. Chapter 3 discusses the methodological approach of the thesis, and more particularly the mixed-methods research design. In Chapter 4, I summarize the six articles that test my theory empirically.

In Article I, I rely on a laboratory experiment, in-depth interviews and survey data and find that interpersonal deliberative communication motivates citizens to engage in more reflective and less biased political thinking, via eliciting the processes of empathic perspective taking in them. Article II shows that the kind of climate change communication that engages people emotionally is able to encourage people to reason more reflectively about ambitious climate change policies. Article III is a methodological case study which discusses the advantages and challenges of simulating real-world interpersonal deliberation in a laboratory setting. Article IV experimentally investigates the extent to which information provided about a structured interpersonal deliberation can help voters in the wider public to become more empathetic towards the people on the other side of a public policy debate. The objective of the Article V is to causally test whether empathy for the other can encourage people to think more reflectively about a policy issue. Article VI examines whether the mere exposure to opposing views on a policy issue can engender similar empathetic and reflective processes in people’s political judgements.

In sum, empirical studies show that empathy for the other side can serve as a potentially powerful vehicle for motivating more reflective political reasoning among citizens. The dissertation concludes by discussing the main contributions of this thesis, suggesting new avenues for future research and proposing some applications in practice.

Date:8 Mar 2017 →  5 Mar 2021
Keywords:empathy, political psychology, emotions in politics
Disciplines:Other economics and business, Citizenship, immigration and political inequality, International and comparative politics, Multilevel governance, National politics, Political behaviour, Political organisations and institutions, Political theory and methodology, Public administration, Other political science
Project type:PhD project