Researchers in Vanderbilt’s new political science lab study how voters innately feel about race, gender and more
by Ann Marie Deer Owens
photo by John Russell
When Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama launched their presidential bids and Sarah Palin ran for vice president, they sparked increased interest in the impact of race and gender on voter behavior. Obama’s electoral victory confirmed that a majority of U.S. voters were comfortable with electing the first African American president. However, voters’ readiness for a U.S. female head of state is still in question and sure to resurface as a topic of discussion in 2012.
Scientifically controlled research examining these and other complex political questions is now under way in Vanderbilt’s Research on Individuals, Politics and Society Lab. The state-of-the-art mobile lab, which is housed on the ground floor of Calhoun Hall, is part of the Department of Political Science.
“If we want to know the extent to which gender matters in voters’ choices, we could ask them. But people aren’t necessarily fully aware of how they feel, or they might not want to admit that they have a bias,” said Cindy Kam, associate professor of political science and co-director of the lab.
Kam explained that political scientists can test the gender question by randomly assigning people to two different groups. One group reads an article about two candidates, one male and one female. The other reads about two candidates of the same gender. All other information is kept the same.
“By manipulating simply the sex or the name of the candidate, we can see the effect of gender without asking people to say directly whether the sex of the candidate makes a difference,” Kam said.
Vanderbilt is among about a dozen colleges and universities that have begun to set up labs for political science research.
“We are fielding calls for advice from schools all over the country, including MIT, Pittsburgh and the University of Kentucky,” Kam said. She and lab co-director Elizabeth Zechmeister, assistant professor of political science, were recruited to Vanderbilt last year from the University of California-Davis, where they were actively involved in experimental research.
“Thirty years ago, political science rarely ran experiments; now they constitute the heart of the discipline,” Distinguished Professor of Political Science John Geer said. “That we have such a lab helps keep us at the cutting edge as we gather new data that speaks across a range of disciplines and fields. It is truly exciting to have not only the lab on campus, but also to have faculty such as Kam and Zechmeister who can make the most of this facility.”
The first study in the Vanderbilt lab looked at evaluations of political leadership in the context of the 2008 presidential election. It was a follow-up to work that Zechmeister had done at UC-Davis about the effects of various types of threats on people’s perceptions of political leaders. Three hundred fifty Vanderbilt undergraduates in seven different classes volunteered. One group was given an article that played up the threat of a terrorist attack while the other set of volunteers read an article emphasizing positive developments in the country.
“The expectation was that in times of security threat, in particular the threat of terrorist attack, people would evaluate certain leaders as stronger and more capable than they would otherwise,” Zechmeister said. “The theory is that people are looking for some type of hero or savior in a crisis.” The research confirmed earlier findings that voters do place more value on strong leadership than candidates’ policy positions and personal traits like honesty during times of terrorist threat.
An advantage of having the study volunteers respond on computers, as opposed to using paper and pencil, is that the data can be collected more quickly and accurately. Zechmeister said that computers help “tech up” the types of stimuli, such as campaign ads, that they show the volunteers. Kam and Zechmeister are collaborating with Geer, political scientist Efrén Pérez and Sohee Park, a professor of psychology, to explore the effects of negative and positive ads on voters’ political evaluations.
“We are excited to bridge across different schools and disciplines with this systematic research,” Kam said. They will look at how the ads affect people’s views about specific candidate traits as well as general opinions about government. Park has been instrumental in helping the political scientists to develop their hypothesis and approach to the problem and to think about how the psychological processes might work. Plans are in the works to measure volunteers’ galvanic skin responses while they are watching ads as a way to detect stress, anxiety and other emotions.
While the professors could not be more pleased with how the space in Calhoun is set up – 10 laptop computers with privacy screens and docking stations in 10 identical carrels – they also look forward to taking the lab on the road. Carrying cases with wheels will allow easy transporting, Zechmeister said. They plan to set up in various campus buildings, such as Sarratt Student Center, as well as off-campus venues, such as the Farmers’ Market in North Nashville. Zechmeister will take the lab outside of the United States for her research with the Latin American Public Opinion Project (LAPOP).
One of the most beneficial aspects of having a political science lab on campus is that it becomes a locus for faculty and students to come together for collaborative endeavors.
“It’s great to have the equipment and space for research, but it’s the human capital that makes a difference,” Kam said.
The professors have made it a priority to have both undergraduate and graduate students work as paid research assistants. Graduate students will conduct their own lab studies, and the lab also will extend Vanderbilt’s outreach into the community by inviting non-students to participate in some studies, all of which are approved by the university’s Institutional Review Board.
“After we do a study, we try to return to the classes that participated and discuss the results,” Zechmeister said. “Students learn about the study’s benefits and if there are plans for additional studies.”
Kam and Zechmeister are confident that the lab will lure more faculty and graduate students to Vanderbilt.
“Lab studies offer a sharp contrast to the standard political science study, which basically involves taking some ‘off-the-shelf’ data and analyzing it the best you can to fit your particular question,” Kam said. “With the lab, you don’t have to settle for existing data. You can design the study that is perfect for your question.”
For more information about the Research on Individuals, Politics and Society Lab, visit www.vanderbilt.edu/rips. To listen to an interview with professors Kam and Zechmeister, visit www.vanderbilt.edu/news/audio.