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Melissa Baker, Ph.D.
University of Toronto
Biology And Politics
My research sits broadly within political psychology and American political behavior. I put a great deal of focus on research questions about how emotions and affective entities influence political attitudes and behavior. I employ mostly experimental methods in order to address political cognition and how individuals process their political worlds.
Dissertation: How do political interest and inherent levels of anxiety influence the established relationship between situational anxiety brought on by the political environment and information seeking behavior? In my dissertation, I argue that political interest and trait anxiety (i.e. inherent level of anxiety) 1) serve as selection mechanisms, determining who experiences state anxiety (i.e. situational anxiety brought on by the environment), and 2) determine how (much) state anxiety influences information seeking behavior. My proposed research will provide insight into why some people never immerse themselves into politics, and if they do, how political interest and anxiety influence their information environment that leads to information seeking behavior. With today’s oversaturated information environment and prevalent social media use, it is important to understand what prevents people from selecting into political state anxiety and what selecting in means for different types of people. I propose a series of three studies—using surveys, experiments, and physiological methods—to examine the roles of political interest and trait anxiety in state anxiety, attention to objects and environments that induce state anxiety, and information seeking behavior.
Political polarization at the elite level is a major concern in many contemporary democracies, which is argued to alienate large swaths of the electorate and prevent meaningful social change from occurring, yet little is known about how individuals respond to political candidates who deviate from the party line and express policy positions incongruent with their party affiliations. This experiment examines the neural underpinnings of such evaluations using functional MRI (fMRI). During fMRI, participants completed an experimental task where they evaluated policy positions attributed to hypothetical political candidates. Each block of trials focused on one candidate (Democrat or Republican), but all participants saw two candidates from each party in a randomized order. On each trial, participants received information about whether the candidate supported or opposed a specific policy issue. These issue positions varied in terms of congruence between issue position and candidate party affiliation. We modeled neural activity as a function of incongruence and whether participants were viewing ingroup or outgroup party candidates. Results suggest that neural activity in brain regions previously implicated in both evaluative processing and work on ideological differences (insula and anterior cingulate cortex) differed as a function of the interaction between incongruence, candidate type (ingroup versus outgroup), and political ideology. More liberal participants showed greater activation to incongruent versus congruent trials in insula and ACC, primarily when viewing ingroup candidates. Implications for the study of democratic representation and linkages between citizens’ calls for social change and policy implementation are discussed.
In the last decade, political science has seen a rise in the use of physiological measures in order to inform theories about decision-making in politics. A commonly used physiological measure is skin conductance (electrodermal activity). Skin conductance measures the changes in levels of sweat in the eccrine glands, usually on the fingertips, in order to help inform how the body responds to stimuli. These changes result from the sympathetic nervous system (popularly known as the fight or flight system) responding to external stimuli. Due to the nature of physiological responses, skin conductance is especially useful when researchers hope to have good temporal resolution and make causal claims about a type of stimulus eliciting physiological arousal in individuals. Researchers interested in areas that involve emotion or general affect (e.g. campaign messages, political communication and advertising, information processing, general political psychology) may be especially interested in integrating skin conductance into their methodological toolbox. Skin conductance is a particularly useful tool since its implicit and unconscious nature means that it avoids some of the pitfalls that can accompany self-report measures (e.g. social desirability bias and inability to accurately remember/report emotions). Future decision-making research will benefit from pairing traditional self-report measures with physiological measures such as skin conductance.
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