Expert Commentary

Counterframing effects: Political messages, competition and uncertainty

2013 study in The Journal of Politics on the idea that there is a universally successful strategy for political messages that attempt to rebut contrary claims.


The way citizens form their beliefs about political issues — and how they fix on policy preferences — is complex, but research suggests there are some core truths about the dynamics of public opinion. Scholars have increasingly concluded that the messages of “elites” — politicians in office, party leaders — are more important than is often acknowledged, and political polarization can fundamentally change public opinion dynamics. This can be seen in the way views have shifted on issues such as climate change. The way rhetoric can shape how people value different considerations within an issue, referred to as “framing effects,” are also important. This can be seen in, for example, how Iowa voters respond to differently framed messages around immigration. Further, scholars have determined that the sequence and timing of messages are crucial variables; though large-scale political ad campaigns can help “prime” the attitudes of voters, the duration of these effects can be surprisingly brief.

As two sides compete to influence the public, messages will attempt to frame and counterframe one another. Think of the original debate over the Affordable Care Act and health care reform: As one side leveled charges of “socialized medicine,” the other side tried to use the counterframe of “high-quality, affordable choices” and cost control. Political consultants, pundits and pollsters often make confident judgments about what is the best “messaging” or framing on an issue, but research suggests caution.

A 2013 study published in The Journal of Politics, “Counterframing Effects,” (draft working paper here) analyzed data from an experiment in which the authors, Dennis Chong of the University of Southern California and James N. Druckman of Northwestern, asked members of the public about the U.S. Patriot Act. They used frames relating to how the law might help fight terrorism or, by contrast, may jeopardize civil liberties by increasing government surveillance. The researchers note a distinction between two very different types of people in terms of the way they process information: those who take an “online” approach to information, and draw an overall summary evaluation in their minds (referred to as “OL processors”); and those who take a “memory-based” approach, storing considerations in their minds but not drawing strong conclusions (“MB processors”).

The study’s findings include:

  • There is likely no one “universally successful counterframing strategy.” The evidence shows that “citizens — depending on the strength of their prior opinions — will react in varying ways to competing communications. Thus, the reality is that the success or failure of a counterframing strategy depends on the precise nature of the interaction between messages and audiences.”
  • “The outcome of a quick counterframing strategy depends on the audience. If individuals formed strong attitudes in response to the first frame, counterframing can keep the original attitude salient and forestall its decay. If people formed an initial weak attitude, waiting to counterframe makes little difference as it will be effective in most cases; moreover, repeating the counterframe may also be productive among such individuals.”
  • In sum, a “communications strategy that is effective overall may be impossible as tactics that are effective on those who have weak attitudes may be counterproductive for those who have a strong viewpoint. Optimal strategies therefore depend on audiences. If most voters are MB processors, then it pays to dominate the media in the latter stages in the campaign. If most voters are OL processors, then it is better to start one’s campaign early and solidify one’s position periodically if resources permit. In short, the heterogeneous populations make a single effective communication strategy not only challenging but possibly implausible (in that it could work among some and backfire among others).”

In terms of strategy advice, the study concludes that “if adequate resources are available, it is always best to saturate the media — early and often — with the strongest arguments for one’s position. Given the strategic dynamics of competition, each side will want to establish its position first. If one side is slow off the mark, it should seek a way to counterattack that does not inadvertently strengthen the attitude it is challenging.”

Related research: A 2013 study published in Political Communication, “How Quickly We Forget: The Duration of  Persuasion Effects From Mass Communication,” examines data from past presidential and Congressional election cycles to assess how quickly the power of advertising decays. The authors, Seth J. Hill , James Lo , Lynn Vavreck and John Zaller, state that, although it is possible for advertising to have long and durable effects, the data suggest it is not likely: The “effects of political communication — and therewith the public’s capacity for durable learning — may be sharply limited. No one would expect citizens to remember the myriad details in media reports of public affairs. One might, however, hope that the information would make a lasting imprint on opinion.” Further, they write, “Sizable long-term effects occur only when communication is repeated over a long period of time.”

A related 2012 metastudy, “Misinformation and Its Correction: Continued Influence and Successful Debiasing,” focuses on how falsehoods and half-truths originate and spread, why it is difficult to correct them and how best to counteract them.

Tags: cognition, climate politics, immigration, Obamacare

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