Stereotypes and Stories: The Effect of Storytelling in the Political Arena
Harbin, Myra Brielle
Political stories are a common, yet to date, underexplored feature of elite discourse. Politicians tell stories to illustrate the stakes of public policy issues and the purpose of government programs. Journalists tell stories to help audiences understand complex social and political issues. Individuals often repeat these stories to friends, family and coworkers. Stories are everywhere. However, scholarly work has primarily focused on the effect of thematic political frames on decision-making. These frames describe the stakes of policy issues and problems and temporarily alter the “facts” at the top of individuals’ minds when they express their policy preferences. Political stories, on the other hand, provide a chronological account of events that include characters. Drawing on work by communication and psychology scholars, I argue political stories should have a distinct effect on political beliefs and behavior relative to thematic political frames. In my study, I find evidence in support of my hypothesis that political stories may increase the cognitive resources that individuals are willing to devote to processing opposing arguments. I also find these individuals were more likely to write reactions to policy proposals after reading a political story. Finally, I find that individuals who read a political story were more likely to blame the government for the predicament facing story characters. My main findings are of great relevance to politics in light of work that suggests that one of the greatest obstacles to a fully participatory democracy is capturing citizens’ attention. Stories seem to be a tool for increasing attention. This finding, together with the effect of political stories on blame attributions, suggest that as individuals become more willing to devote their attention to this information, they may also become more likely to hold government officials accountable for social problems, which is an essential component of a healthy democracy.