Science Briefs

How People Organize Their Political Attitudes: The Roles of Ideology, Expertise, and Evaluative Motivation

Research suggests the value of understanding ideology’s use as both an informational and interactive process.

By Christopher M. Federico

Christopher M. Federico is Associate Professor of Psychology and Political Science at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. He is also Director of the University of Minnesota's Center for the Study of Political Psychology. Dr. Federico received a B.A. degree from the University of California, Berkeley, and M.A. and Ph.D. degrees from the University of California, Los Angeles. His research focuses on political psychology, with specific interests in the psychological foundations of ideology, the structure of attitudes, values, and beliefs, and racial attitudes. Dr. Federico is the current chair of the American Political Science Association's Organized Section on Political Psychology, and he was the recipient of the International Society of Political Psychology's 2007 Erik Erikson Award for Early Career Research Achievements.

Democracy provides people with the opportunity to be active citizens rather than passive subjects. However, the promise of participation comes with a number of challenges. Citizens must evaluate a large number of political objects (such as candidates, parties, and platforms) and then aggregate these preferences in a way which allows them to be mapped onto a simple vote decision. So, how are these challenges met? Political psychologists have often emphasized the role of ideology in the form of the bipolar distinction between "left" and "right" (Jost, 2006). The successful learning and "use" of this ideological continuum allows individuals to adopt ideologically consistent positions toward different political objects and it contributes to the crystallization of opinions about particular political objects (Zaller, 1992). Ideology is thought to do these things by bundling a large number of potential evaluative criteria together under the rubric of a single left-right dimension. Once an individual understands the logic of this dimension and locates herself somewhere on it, the otherwise-overwhelming task of evaluating the multitude of objects encountered in the political world and mapping the resulting attitudes onto simple political choices is eased (Sniderman & Bullock, 2004).

Despite these benefits, research suggests that most individuals are not able to use ideology when forming and organizing their opinions. This raises the question of what citizens need in order to make effective use of ideology. Information in the form of political expertise, or factual political knowledge, is the answer most frequently given (e.g., Converse, 2000). In contrast, almost no attention has been devoted to the role of motivation - that is, needs, goals, and wants - in the use of ideology. In an effort to fill this gap, my recent work offers a general perspective on the motivational underpinnings of the use of ideology. This perspective suggests that expertise will not be associated with the use of ideology unless individuals also possess a high level of evaluative motivation - i.e., the desire to form clear opinions about attitude objects. In the sections which follow, I review the theoretical and empirical bases for my approach.

Ideological Thinking in Mass Publics-and the Role of Expertise

One of the most significant and controversial conclusions of modern public opinion research is that a large portion of the public does not anchor its attitudes toward various political objects in terms of abstract ideological concepts. Converse (1964) famously argued that use of a central ideological reference point – to which judgments about specific objects are all tied – would manifest itself primarily as consistency in attitudes toward different issues at the same point in time, i.e., constraint. Secondarily, he suggested that a key feature of constraint – the presence of strong links between issue positions and a central ideological reference point – would also make it difficult to alter any one attitude without disrupting the internal consistency of an individual’s belief system, thus encouraging attitude crystallization and stability (Eagly & Chaiken, 1993). However, Converse’s own highly-influential analyses suggested that neither of these hallmarks of ideological thinking were highly evident in samples of citizens from the mass public. Much of the subsequent research in this area has also found similar results, with most research indicating the broad majority of citizens do not appear to form opinions about issues and candidates that are ideologically consistent or stable (Campbell et al., 1960; Converse, 2000; Jost, Federico, & Napier, 2009; Zaller, 1992).

These findings are troubling, since political elites conduct business largely in the language of ideology. This implies that citizens who cannot make use of ideology-who are disproportionately concentrated in social groups that are already relatively powerless (Delli Carpini & Keeter, 1996)-will be at a disadvantage in comprehending those in power and holding them to account. So, it is clear that there are not only differences in the degree to which individuals use "sophisticated" conceptual tools like ideology, but also meaningful consequences associated with these differences.

In that case, what factors make it easier for individuals to "use" ideology in order to form and organize opinions? In this regard, researchers have zeroed in on political expertise, which is generally defined as the possession of greater amounts of factual political knowledge (Delli Carpini & Keeter 1996). A substantial body of research indicates that expertise is reliably associated with increased attitude constraint and to a lesser extent stability (Converse, 2000; Jost, Federico, & Napier, 2009; Zaller, 1992). Work in this area suggests that experts are more likely to display constrained attitudes because they possess more well-developed political schemas, or organized clusters of information about politics in general and about the values, beliefs, and issue stances associated with a given position on the left-right continuum (Fiske, Lau, & Smith, 1990). In turn, this knowledge provides citizens with a basis for adopting an informed ideological orientation based on a real comprehension of the content of different ideological positions (e.g., Stimson, 2004). The resulting orientation can then be used to make evaluative judgments about a broader set of political objects.

Motivational Influences on the Use of Ideology: Evaluation as a Goal

Given the wide range of evidence for the role of expertise, scholarship tends to depict the successful use of ideology as an informational problem: individuals will develop a substantively meaningful ideological orientation and ideologically organize their attitudes toward specific political objects if they have acquired enough information about the conceptual content of the left-right continuum. What it does not explicitly attend to is the role of motivational factors, i.e., the needs or goals that determine how individuals actually use expertise-based ideological reference points when making judgments.

But what is the actual "motivational factor" behind the use of ideology? My own approach suggests that the critical process relates to the need to use expertise for evaluative purposes. In this vein, the use of ideology actually consists of two different processes: a first process in which expertise provides individuals an understanding of the left-right continuum, enabling them to meaningfully identify themselves with an ideological position; and a second process in which the resulting ideological predispositions are used for a specifically evaluative purpose, i.e., to judge various political objects as "good" or "bad" (e.g., Jarvis & Petty, 1996).

In other words, the actual application of ideology may depend not just on expertise but also on citizens being motivated to evaluate political objects as good or bad. This suggests that it may be more appropriate to model the use of ideology as resulting from an interaction between expertise and the motivation to use predispositions rooted in expertise in an evaluative fashion. This point leads to a simple hypothesis which forms the basis for my recent work: the presence or absence of a motive to evaluate should moderate the positive relationship between expertise and the use of ideology, such that this relationship is stronger among those who approach politics with a high level of evaluative motivation. The necessary "evaluative motivation" may come from a number of sources. These include general individual differences like the need to evaluate, i.e., the extent to which an individual is motivated to spontaneously form evaluations of experiences, ideas, and social objects as either "good" or "bad" (Jarvis & Petty, 1996); as well as individual differences in motivation specific to politics, such as the extent to which the political domain is seen as important and relevant to the self (see Boninger, Krosnick, Berent, & Fabrigar, 1995; Luskin, 1990; Thomsen, Borgida, & Lavine, 1995). While they have been less thoroughly explored in the program of research reviewed below, situational variables such as the extent to which goals related to impression formation are made salient in a particular context (Lavine, 2002; Lodge, 1995; see also Hastie & Park, 1986) should also matter.

Regardless of its source, evaluative motivation should have critical effects on the process by which attitude responses occur. As we have seen, ideology provides a common reference point that helps individuals reach a consistent set of evaluative conclusions about a wide variety of political objects, and it simplifies the process by which citizens map their preferences onto political choices offered by elites (e.g., candidates; Sniderman & Bullock, 2004). This suggests that the ideological self-placements afforded by expertise may have different levels of utility and different consequences among those high and low in evaluative motivation. On one hand, individuals with a strong evaluative motive should approach the political world with an inclination to form attitudes toward various objects. Since ideology offers a handy conceptual framework for the systematic evaluation of multiple issues, the ability to understand the left-right distinction and place oneself on it in an informed way should be more useful to these individuals. Thus, experts high in evaluative motivation may be particularly inclined to use the ideological orientation afforded by their expertise to simplify the process of evaluating other political objects, thus increasing the extent to which individuals display constraint and other manifestations of ideological judgment. On the other hand, experts without a strong evaluative motive should have little need to actually use the ideological orientation afforded by their expertise. Instead of relying on ideology, these experts may episodically construct evaluations of specific objects when prompted to do so (e.g., Wilson & Hodges, 1992). As such, their attitude responses should be influenced less by a common ideological reference point than by whatever happens to be salient, leading to less evidence of the use of ideology.

Evidence for the Interactive Model

Using data from three large surveys of American adults-the 1998 American National Election Study (ANES) Pilot, the 2000 ANES, and the 2004 ANES (American National Election Studies, 2009)-my colleagues and I have provided evidence for this interactive hypothesis with respect to a number of dependent variables indicative of the use of ideology. In several studies, we have used the short 2-item version of Jarvis and Petty's (1996) Need to Evaluate Scale developed by Bizer et al. (2004) to operationalize evaluative motivation in terms of individual personality differences. Our analyses using this measure indicate that people high in political expertise are more likely to approach politics in an ideological fashion when they are also high in the need to evaluate. For example, using data from the 1998 ANES Pilot and the 2000 ANES, we found that the usual positive relationship between expertise and ideological constraint was stronger among individuals high in the need to evaluate (Federico & Schneider, 2007). Similarly, in the 2000 and 2004 ANES, I have shown that expertise was more strongly associated with a tendency to evaluate ideologically antagonistic groups, candidates, and parties in an affectively opposed fashion among those with a high need to evaluate (Federico, 2004, 2007). In other words, experts were more "consistent" in their evaluations of opposed political actors-for example, evaluating liberals and Democrats positively if they evaluated conservatives and Republicans negatively-if they were also high in the need to evaluate.

In other studies, I have found similar patterns with respect to variables less directly related to ideological consistency. For example, using data from the 2000 ANES, I found that expertise is more strongly associated with extreme ideological self-placement-i.e., one that deviates more from a neutral, centrist position to either the right or left-among those with a high need to evaluate (Federico 2004). Similarly, in another set of analyses using the 2000 ANES, we have shown that experts are more likely to describe the differences between the Democratic and Republican parties in ideological or near-ideological terms when they are also high in the need to evaluate (Federico & Schneider, 2007).

In a more recent set of analyses, my colleagues and I have conceptually replicated this basic result using other operationalizations of evaluative motivation (Federico & Hunt, 2009). As noted earlier, domain-specific sources of evaluative motivation-such as personal involvement in politics-should also moderate the relationship between expertise and the use of ideology. Consistent with this prediction, we have found that expertise is more strongly associated with higher scores on composite measures of ideological consistency and extremity in ideological self-placement among individuals who are high in a key indicator of personal involvement in politics, i.e., interest in politics. Similarly, our analyses also indicated that a second indicator of personal involvement in politics-strength of partisanship-had a similar moderating effect, such that expertise was more strongly related to consistency and extremity among those who identified as "strong" Democrats or Republicans (as opposed to weak partisans or independents).


In sum, analyses using data from multiple samples of American adults provide a healthy pattern of support for the interactive hypotheses I outline above. Across a range of relevant dependent measures-including measures of constraint and other forms of ideological consistency and measures of ideological extremity-higher levels of political expertise are more strongly associated with greater evidence of an "ideological" approach to politics among those high in evaluative motivation. This pattern holds for both global sources of evaluative motivation (e.g., the need to evaluate) and sources of evaluative motivation specific to the political domain (i.e., interest in politics). All in all, the data thus point to the value of understanding the use of ideology not merely as an informational process rooted in expertise, but as an interactive process involving both expertise and the motivation to use it in an evaluative fashion.

Author Note

The author would like to thank the Inter-University Consortium for Political and Social Research for the 2000 and 2004 National Election Study datasets used in the data analyses reviewed here. Please direct all correspondence to Christopher M. Federico, Department of Psychology, University of Minnesota, 75 E. River Road, Minneapolis, MN 55455. E-mail


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