Viewers who watched a supposedly real talk show where two political candidates engaged in a hostile, rude debate showed more negative attitudes toward Congress, politicians - and even the American political system -- than did viewers who watched a more courteous debate.
People who viewed the uncivil debates also remembered fewer of the arguments supporting the viewpoint they opposed - and were more likely to say the opposing arguments were not legitimate. "Television depends on conflict to make politics seem less boring to the public and attract declining audiences, but that conflict comes with a price," said Diana Mutz, co-author of the study and professor of political science at Ohio State University.
"Hostile political talk shows such as Hardball, Meet the Press and the like affect not just attitudes toward candidates, but also have a negative impact on how viewers feel about politicians in general and the whole political system. Political programs that are interesting to watch may end up damaging public attitudes in a significant way," she said.
Mutz conducted the study with Justin Taylor, an Ohio State graduate student, and Byron Reeves, a professor of political science at Stanford University.
They presented their results this month in San Francisco at the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association.
For the study, the researchers taped a fictional version of a political talk show called "Indiana Week in Review." Two actors played candidates for the 5th District seat in Indiana. In this show, the "candidates" debated several controversial issues, such as taxing sales on Internet purchases, government regulation of tobacco and free trade. Two versions of each exchange were taped. Although the candidates expressed exactly the same issue positions in each case and used exactly the same arguments, the tone of each exchange was very different.
In the "civil" version, the candidates bent over backward to be polite to the opposition, used persistently calm voices, waited patiently while the other person answered and paid respectful attention while the opponent was speaking.
In the "uncivil" version, the candidates used the same script, but inserted asides that suggested their lack of respect and frustration with the opposition. The candidates raised their voices, interrupted each other and used nonverbal cues such as rolling their eyes to show a lack of respect for what the other candidate was saying.
These tapes were then shown to 100 study volunteers who were led to believe they were watching real candidates on a real talk show.
Before the show, participants filled out questionnaires that asked them about their political background and their positions on some of the issues they would see debated.
They then watched twenty minutes of the talk show in which the candidates debated issues in either a civil or uncivil manner. Participants then filled out a questionnaire about their attitudes toward the candidates and various government institutions, the perceived positions of the two candidates on the issues, and whether they thought each candidate presented a strong or weak argument. Each person watched four issue exchanges.
The results showed that people who viewed the uncivil exchanges were much more negative toward Congress than those who viewed the civil debates.
"It was surprising that people were more negative toward Congress after the uncivil exchange, even though we made clear that neither candidate was now or had ever been a member of Congress," Mutz said. "And it is still more surprising that attitudes toward the American political system were influenced negatively by the civility of this one political talk show."
Mutz said the results also showed how civility effects the way people perceive their favorite candidates and the opposition.
Those who watched a civil debate did well at remembering the arguments made by both candidates. However, people who watched the uncivil exchanges remembered primarily arguments on their own side of the issue.
Moreover, people who watched the uncivil exchange judged the oppositions' arguments to be weaker and less legitimate reasons for disagreement than did people who watched the civil exchange.
This has important implications for our political system, she said. "We all have to tolerate differences of opinion in the political world and, in order to do that, we have to understand that there are real reasons for why people hold opposing opinions, even though we may not think the reasons are the most compelling," Mutz said. "But these hostile exchanges led people to de-legitimize the opposition."
Mutz said the study showed that people understand that conflict is an important part of politics in this country - but they want conflict handled responsibly. For example, the researchers asked participants whether they agreed with the statement "It's very important that politicians air their differences of opinion publicly." Results showed people responded equally positively to this statement, whether they saw the civil or uncivil debate.
"People were able to differentiate between the importance of conflict in politics, and the civility of that conflict," she said. "People still value conflict in politics, but they don't like it when politicians express conflict in a nasty and hostile manner."
The only positive aspect of the uncivil debate was that viewers were slightly more likely to remember who stood where on each of the issues. More intense conflict led to greater recall of who stood where, even though it suppressed recall of the arguments behind those positions.
The research was supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation and the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences.