Winning Proposal to the Pierce Scholar's Fund: 2017 Competition

Project Title: The Influence of Perceived Competence on Political Interest and Participation

Faculty Sponsor: Nicholas Valentino

Graduate Student: Erin Cikanek

Project Description

The early political science consensus about who participates politics is rooted in resources: socioeconomic capital springing from education, free time and income strongly predict citizens’ past or future participation in aspects of political life. More recent theoretical developments make room for the effort of elites to mobilize citizens. The precise causal role of political interest, however, remains little understood. Some theories place it in the middle somewhere: resources cause interest, which leads to action. Others think it is a personality trait that catalyzes (moderates) the power of resources but is unaffected by them. What we do know is that participation is often quite highly correlated with self-reports of interest and attention to political information. Most studies simply include interest as another predictor in the list, rather than attempt to determine where it comes from.

This is why Prior’s forthcoming book length attempt to understand the causal antecedents of political interest is quite welcome and needed. Unfortunately, from our perspective at least, the closest Prior comes to an explanation is that interest develops at a young age, and primarily among those who are in highly resourced families, but it is not clear exactly what about those resources causes interest in politics for some and not others. This is, of course, a gross oversimplification of Prior’s nuanced work. Still, it got Cikanek and me thinking about what might be going on in the observational pattern his massive book has so clearly revealed.

For this project, we would like to explore a specific causal antecedent to political interest that psychologists say is common to all complex skills and abilities: perceived competence. It turns out that believing oneself to be skilled at something, to have some natural ability, is positively related to the perception that one is interested in that topic and must have worked hard in the past to get so good at it. On the other hand, being told that you are not very good at something leads naturally to the conclusion that one isn’t that interested in the topic and hasn’t worked very hard to be good at. In sum, our simple idea is that some people are told they are good at politics, and if they have the resources to participate those people end up being more interested and actually participating. In other words, we want to test the same bootstrapping theory for raising successful children that now dominates developmental psychology texts and, consequently, many self help books for new parents.