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Exposure to Mediated Political Conflict: Effects of Civility of Interaction on Arousal and Memory
Unformatted Document Text:  4 voyeur rather than as a participant in actual conversation. People can listen to and read political views in media that would otherwise be repugnant. The two studies reported here test the relationship of discourse civility to attention and memory by assessing physiological arousal associated with uncivil versus civil debate, and by measuring memory for political information in both conditions. The specific research questions we address include: 1) Is typical televised political conflict more arousing when candidates engage in uncivil versus civil discourse? 2) Can television accentuate this arousal by using close-up camera shots? 3) Do people remember more about candidates’ positions and the arguments they make in uncivil or civil exchanges? An explanation for how televised conflict is processed depends in part on expected differences between face-to-face interactions and their mediated counterparts. Below we describe two important ways in which the experience of political conflict through media may differ from real life exposure to conflicting political views. Drawing on the social psychological literature and research on human-media interactions, we examine the potentially positive and negative consequences of the way in which political differences of opinion are experienced when watching television as opposed to experiencing face-to-face interactions. Mediated versus Real World Experience of Political Conflict Americans’ unmediated exposure to conflicting political opinions comes in the form of informal exchanges that occur in the course of day-to-day life. These might be expressions of opinion that they or someone else initiates, or they might involve observing others exchanging views. In face-to-face scenarios, there are social norms observed among participants who express differences in political opinion. However, these same norms may not be observed when it comes to televised conflicts. Below we describe two important dimensions of difference. Civility. One key difference is the degree of civility in the expression of disagreement. Most real world exposure to conflicting political views is polite. Conversations occasionally get heated with real people, but the yelling and screaming is far more common in mediated presentations than in real life. Increased market competition encourages producers to "liven themselves up" in order to increase audience size (Fallows 1996). Programs such as the McLaughlin Group, Meet the Press, Crossfire, Capital Gang, and Hardball all depict intense and heated exchanges. Even news programs are increasingly characterized by a similar emphasis on controversy and contentiousness. Although civil and polite exchanges of opinion do occur on television, and screaming does occur in interpersonal discussions, the central tendency in media is to highlight emotional extremes and impolite expressions, whereas the central tendency in face-to-face communication is toward politeness and emotional control. When conflict occurs face-to-face, the tendency is to steer conversation toward safer topics, and to downplay the seriousness and intensity of any conflict. Polite and pleasant exchanges may seem to constrain the value of conflict but norms that encourage good manners are strong (Brown & Levinson 1987). Most people are polite most of the time. Moreover, the need to be polite is particularly great when expressing views that others may find objectionable. Emerson, for example, believed in the importance of conflict yet disliked an argumentative, confrontational style. He advocated "tenderness" in manners of

Authors: Mutz, Diana., Reeves, Byron. and Wise, Kevin.
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voyeur rather than as a participant in actual conversation. People can listen to and read political
views in media that would otherwise be repugnant.

The two studies reported here test the relationship of discourse civility to attention and
memory by assessing physiological arousal associated with uncivil versus civil debate, and by
measuring memory for political information in both conditions. The specific research questions
we address include: 1) Is typical televised political conflict more arousing when candidates
engage in uncivil versus civil discourse? 2) Can television accentuate this arousal by using
close-up camera shots? 3) Do people remember more about candidates’ positions and the
arguments they make in uncivil or civil exchanges?

An explanation for how televised conflict is processed depends in part on expected
differences between face-to-face interactions and their mediated counterparts. Below we
describe two important ways in which the experience of political conflict through media may
differ from real life exposure to conflicting political views. Drawing on the social psychological
literature and research on human-media interactions, we examine the potentially positive and
negative consequences of the way in which political differences of opinion are experienced
when watching television as opposed to experiencing face-to-face interactions.
Mediated versus Real World Experience of Political Conflict
Americans’ unmediated exposure to conflicting political opinions comes in the form of
informal exchanges that occur in the course of day-to-day life. These might be expressions of
opinion that they or someone else initiates, or they might involve observing others exchanging
views. In face-to-face scenarios, there are social norms observed among participants who
express differences in political opinion. However, these same norms may not be observed
when it comes to televised conflicts. Below we describe two important dimensions of difference.
Civility. One key difference is the degree of civility in the expression of disagreement.
Most real world exposure to conflicting political views is polite. Conversations occasionally get
heated with real people, but the yelling and screaming is far more common in mediated
presentations than in real life. Increased market competition encourages producers to "liven
themselves up" in order to increase audience size (Fallows 1996). Programs such as the
McLaughlin Group, Meet the Press, Crossfire, Capital Gang, and Hardball all depict intense and
heated exchanges. Even news programs are increasingly characterized by a similar emphasis
on controversy and contentiousness. Although civil and polite exchanges of opinion do occur
on television, and screaming does occur in interpersonal discussions, the central tendency in
media is to highlight emotional extremes and impolite expressions, whereas the central
tendency in face-to-face communication is toward politeness and emotional control. When
conflict occurs face-to-face, the tendency is to steer conversation toward safer topics, and to
downplay the seriousness and intensity of any conflict.
Polite and pleasant exchanges may seem to constrain the value of conflict but norms
that encourage good manners are strong (Brown & Levinson 1987). Most people are polite
most of the time. Moreover, the need to be polite is particularly great when expressing views
that others may find objectionable. Emerson, for example, believed in the importance of conflict
yet disliked an argumentative, confrontational style. He advocated "tenderness" in manners of


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