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‘13 Reasons Why’ and Young Adults’ Risk of Suicide

By Michael Rozansky. Original post for the Annenberg Public Policy Center.  

One of the most heavily watched and debated fictional portrayals of suicide in recent years was the Netflix series “13 Reasons Why,” which raised outcries about potential contagion stemming from its portrayal of a female high-school student’s suicide.

Google searches about suicide spiked after the release of Season 1, physicians said that several children created lists of “13 reasons why” they wanted to kill themselves, and one hospital saw an increase in admissions of children who exhibited suicidal behavior. But two studies conducted after the series was released found some beneficial effects.

Given the series’ popularity and its potentially harmful effects, researchers at the University of Vienna, the University of Leuven, the University of Michigan, and the Annenberg Public Policy Center (APPC) conducted a study to more fully understand the effects of the show through a survey of U.S. young adults, ages 18 to 29, before and after the May 2018 release of its second season.

In the study, published today in the journal Social Science & Medicine, researchers found that:

  • Viewers who stopped watching the second season partway through reported greater risk for future suicide and less optimism about the future than those who watched the entire season or didn’t watch it at all;
  • Students – who were nearly 60 percent of the sample – were at an overall higher risk for suicide. Of the viewers who dropped out of watching the series midway, students were at a significantly higher suicide risk than non-students (see Figure 1);
  • The show appeared to have a beneficial effect on students who saw the full second season: They were less likely to report recent self-harm and thoughts of ending their lives than comparable students who didn’t watch the series at all. And viewers in general were more likely to express interest in helping a suicidal person, especially compared with those who stopped watching;
  • Netflix’s warning about the show’s potentially disturbing content that preceded Season 2 mainly appeared to increase viewing but did not appear to prevent vulnerable viewers from watching the season.

“Although there’s some good news about the effects of ‘13 Reasons Why,’ our findings confirm concerns about the show’s potential for adverse effects on vulnerable viewers,” said Dan Romer, APPC’s research director and the study’s senior author. “It would have been helpful had the producers done more to enable vulnerable viewers to watch the entire second season, which is when the show had its more beneficial effects.”

Fig. 1: Predicted suicide risk

Background on the study

Suicide is the second-leading cause of death among 15- to 29-year-olds. Media portrayals of suicide have been shown to have helpful and harmful effects. Stories of suicide in news and fictional media can elicit suicide – especially when they explicitly show suicide methods – in a phenomenon called the Werther effect, after Goethe’s novel “The Sorrows of Young Werther.” By contrast, news stories about people who have overcome a suicidal crisis have had a positive impact, a more recently documented phenomenon that is known as the Papageno effect, after the character in Mozart’s opera “The Magic Flute.”

For this study the researchers surveyed 18- to 29-year-olds, who reported having access to Netflix, both shortly before the second season was launched and a month later. A total of 729 respondents completed both the initial internet survey and the follow-up, which used validated scales to measure future suicide risk, hopelessness, recent self-harm, and related outcomes. Women were over represented in this sample (82 percent), perhaps because “13 Reasons Why” involved a female protagonist.

An indicator of distress

“13 Reasons Why” seemed to be particularly upsetting for young people who were already at a higher risk of suicide and who empathized with the main character, 17-year-old Hannah, who is bullied and sexually assaulted before deciding to end her life. As the researchers wrote, “We hypothesized that watching only some of the series could be an indicator of distress that led those viewers to discontinue exposure to the upsetting content.” The results appeared to support that idea, in that those who watched only some of the second season showed elevated risk of future suicide, an outcome that was stronger for current students.

At the same time, students who watched the entire second season reported less self-harm after watching than those who did not watch at all. Thus the findings suggest that over the course of a month following the second season, the show exerted a beneficial effect on some students.

The researchers added: “One explanation for the beneficial finding is that those at higher risk who persisted to the end were able to empathize with the challenges faced by the main characters and to take away a life-affirming lesson applied to their own lives.” The second season may have conveyed this message with more effectiveness than the first season, which mainly focused on the harm that the suicide inflicted on the victim’s friends and family.

“Given that we know that the Werther effect is a real phenomenon with detrimental consequences, the public outcry about potential contagious effects as a response to the first season is justified,” said the study’s lead author, Florian Arendt of the University of Vienna, Austria. “However, the second season appeared to have more content that could engender a beneficial effect than the first season, and this may have helped those who watched it in its entirety to walk away with more beneficial outcomes.”

Viewers who watched the full second season were also more likely to be sympathetic to a hypothetical friend who appeared to be suicidal. Here again the findings suggest that the show may have succeeded in creating empathy for those in a suicidal crisis.

Evidence the show “can harm some… and may actually help others”

In an accompanying commentary on the study in Social Science & Medicine, Anna S. Mueller of the University of Chicago’s Department of Sociology and Comparative Human Development said the findings “offer the strongest evidence to date that 13RW can harm some youth and the results demonstrate that it may actually help others, which is rarely considered in the media and suicide literature.”

Mueller, who was not connected with the study, said, “It also has important implications for what scholars should do next.” That includes “unpacking how exposure to suicide – whether through media or a personal relationship – transforms an individual’s vulnerability to suicide.”

What should Netflix do?

Romer said, “Producers of shows such as ‘13 Reasons Why’ need to be aware of the potential effects of their shows, particularly on vulnerable audiences. One way to do this would be to make the series less aversive to people who are sensitive to a story about suicide, because they may not get to the parts of the story that have more uplifting effects.”

The researchers noted that the study had limitations, including the one-month time frame for the observed effects. Also, it did not assess respondents’ experiences surrounding sexual assault, an important element in the series in both seasons, which could have influenced reactions.

Romer and Arendt’s co-authors are Patrick E. Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Health and Risk Communication Institute at the Annenberg Public Policy Center; Sebastian Scherr, of the School for Mass Communication Research, University of Leuven, Belgium; and Josh Pasek, of the Department of Communication Studies and Center for Political Studies, Institute for Social Research, University of Michigan.

The study “Investigating harmful and helpful effects of watching season 2 of 13 Reasons Why: Results of a two-wave U.S. panel survey,” is published in Social Science & Medicine.

 

Winners and Losers:
 The Psychology of Attitudes Toward 
Foreign Trade

Post developed by Katherine Pearson and Diana Mutz

Foreign trade is a complex issue, but the public still has strong opinions about the issue. Diana Mutz demonstrated that social psychology can help to understand attitudes about trade when she delivered the 2019 Miller Converse lecture. A recording of her talk “Winners and Losers: The Psychology of Attitudes Toward Foreign Trade” is available below.

Most people rely on small-scale social experiences to understand large-scale interactions such as international trade. From this understanding, people tend to embrace beliefs about trade that are not necessarily accurate. For example, folk beliefs suggest that impersonal transactions are more dangerous than personal ones, that trade is zero-sum, and that trade “deficits” mean that a country is losing more jobs as a result of imports than it gains due to exports. These beliefs are inaccurate, yet understandable, generalizations from the world of face-to-face social exchange.

Contrary to popular wisdom, trade preferences do not reflect people’s economic self-interest. Mutz demonstrates that, surprisingly, these attitudes are not influenced by a person’s occupation, industry of employment, community job loss, geographic location, or individual job loss. Instead, perceptions of what is in the collective economic interest determine attitudes toward trade. Coverage of trade in the media has a large influence on these perceptions. Media coverage of foreign trade was mostly negative until 2016. As media coverage of trade has become more balanced since 2016, support for trade has also increased.

Politicians from all parties have been unwilling to champion trade when running for office because foreign trade is seen as a political liability in the United States. As the world economy changes, Mutz asserts that leaders will need to advocate for trade and for safeguards against its negative effects. She cautions that it’s unhelpful to leave the public out of that conversation altogether as has been common in the past.

For an additional perspective, Mutz compares attitudes about trade in the United States and Canada. She finds that attitudes about trade in the two countries are different due to differing attitudes toward competition. Americans value competition more, and believe in the fairness of unequal outcomes. In the U.S., nationalism reduces support for foreign trade, but in Canada the opposite is true. Canadians who hold the strongest beliefs about national superiority want to promote more trade and immigration.

Differing perspectives on trade in these countries can be explained by variation in two different types of ingroup favoritism. First, Americans in Mutz’s studies systematically preferred trade agreements in which their fellow Americans benefited more than trading partners. In fact, there was no level of job benefits to foreign countries that would justify the loss of even a single American job. This was not the case among Canadians. In addition, Americans demonstrated their competitive attitudes toward trade by demonstrating greater support for trade agreements that not only benefit their country but also disadvantage the trading partner. Canadians, in contrast, preferred the kind of “win-win” trade agreement that economists suggest benefits all countries involved.

Attitudes about race drive attitudes about trade and Mutz finds that the reverse may also be true. In a study that asked respondents to select which students should be admitted to college, participants who had just watched an ad against foreign trade were less supportive of admitting Asian-American students, as well as students from Asia.

Mutz concludes that, while many of these results are distressing, attitudes remain malleable. Efforts to change opinions toward trade that emphasize similarity and shared values are more effective than efforts emphasizing pocketbook gains. Since 2016, her data shows that there has been an increase in support for foreign trade and a realization that it comes with benefits as well as negative consequences.

Divided by Culture: Partisan Imagery and Political Evaluations

Post developed by Katherine Pearson and Stuart Soroka

When you think of a Prius, what political party comes to mind? What about country music? Increasingly, Americans associate partisan leanings with otherwise non-political objects. Dan Hiaeshutter-Rice, Fabian G. Neuner, and Stuart Soroka examine the consequences of these associations in their paper “Divided by Culture: Partisan Imagery and Political Evaluations”, which they will present at the Midwest Political Science Association meeting on Saturday, April 6, 2019.

The cultural and political divide in America receives considerable media and scholarly attention. Republicans and Democrats have different preferences for everyday things like cars and drinks – most people are familiar with stereotypes of latte-drinking liberals or truck-loving conservatives. These differences even extend to their children’s names, the places they live, and the amount they give to charity.

The authors of this paper took a closer look at the extent to which non-political objects, activities, and places are associated with partisanship and ideology. Participants in the study were first prompted to list objects and activities they associate with either liberalism or conservatism. Following this open-ended question, respondents were asked to rate a list of 26 objects and activities based on ideology or partisanship.

The results of the open-ended question are illustrated in the figure below, which shows the words most strongly associated with Democrats (blue) and Republicans (red).  The figure makes clear the ease which which respondents name objects and activities often associated with the two partisan groups.

Hiaeshutter-Rice, D., Neuner, F., Soroka, S. 2019, “Divided by Culture: Partisan Imagery and Political Evaluations”, paper presented to the 77th Annual MPSA Conference, Chicago, IL, April 4-7, 2019.

In subsequent studies, the authors examined  respondents’ reactions to a series of photos of political candidates standing in front of different backgrounds, including a NASCAR race, an organic food store, and a shooting range. Not all treatments made a difference, but the shooting range (and another image of a gun shop) in particular affected the way that respondents perceived the candidates’ ideology and policy proposal.

As more politicians use social media to share images of their campaigns, it is essential to be aware of the ways in which voters evaluate candidates. Nonverbal political communication conveys information that can help shape public opinion and political behavior. Will voters be manipulated by objects and scenery in political messages? The authors suggest that even as respondents can attach partisanship to wide range of non-political activities, their candidate-photo experiment finds only limited effects of hypothetical press-conference backgrounds. They conclude on a comforting note: “The fact that voters are readily able to attach partisanship to objects and activities, but yet barely take this information into account when rating candidates and policies, may be good news for representative democracy.” 

Faida Zacharia Addresses the Challenges of Fresh Water Access in Tanzania

post developed by Katherine Pearson

Faida Zacharia studies access to energy and water resources for smallholder farmers in Dodoma Region in Tanzania. As a visiting scholar at the University of Michigan, she worked closely with Professor Kelly Askew to further her research on “Small-scale Groundwater Irrigated Agriculture and Livelihoods in Drylands Areas: The Case of Dodoma Region, Tanzania.”

Faida Zacharia

Faida Zacharia is an Assistant Lecturer in Development Studies at the University of Dodoma, Tanzania. She came to the University of Michigan as a member of the University of Michigan African Presidential Scholars (UMAPS) 2018-19 cohort.

Addressing groundwater irrigation in Dodoma

Water wars” are on the rise around the world as access to fresh water becomes ever more limited. Countries around the world are facing increased demand for water at a time when fresh water is becoming an ever more scarce resource. Food security and economic development depend on access to water, hence developing countries like Tanzania are seeking new means of increasing access to water for all the needs of its population.

In Dodoma, a semi-arid region in Tanzania, access to fresh water is a challenge. Climate change, industrial activities, and political conflicts all threaten the available water supply. The region has various reservoirs to collect surface water, among them Msalato reservoir, Mkonze dam, Hombolo dam, Bahi dam and Makutupora dam. Mtera dam, the largest dam in Tanzania, is also the primary source of electricity for the national grid. But despite all of these resources, Dodoma faces a shortage of water.

People in Dodoma rely on smallholder farming and livestock keeping for their livelihoods, but the recent rapid growth of this region has put additional pressure on water resources necessary for agriculture. When President John Magufuli was elected in 2015, he declared that Dodoma City would be the political capital of the country, and required all government ministries relocate from Dar es Salaam to Dodoma. People came to Dodoma from other regions of Tanzania, increasing the demand for water for household uses, for industry, and for agriculture beyond what the reservoirs could sustain. Tapping into groundwater resources may provide a solution.

Zacharia is developing new research that will explore how groundwater irrigation in Dodoma region contributes to agriculture and food security, and how it helps poverty reduction in the drylands of central Tanzania. Her research maps the groundwater in the region to establish how much there is and where it is located. This baseline data and knowledge will help to initiate, implement, and sustain groundwater irrigated agriculture in Tanzania.

Zacharia wants to know who benefits and who does not when groundwater irrigation is established in smallholder farming communities. Groundwater irrigated agriculture may prove to have great potential as a strategy that mitigates the impact of climate change on agricultural communities. These findings will inform the policy decision-making process and strategies related to small-scale groundwater irrigated agriculture to enhance the livelihoods of drylands communities.

Zacharia’s research supports sustainable development of infrastructure through an integrated approach to water management to balance the competing needs of agriculture, human consumption, industry, and environmental conservation. In the rush to secure more water, she cautions against a lack of planning that lead to the present water crisis in Cape Town, South Africa and other sites in China, India, and California where groundwater aquifers have been depleted.

Experience of a visiting scholar

Zacharia says that her time at the University of Michigan has been essential to advancing her research. Her fellowship allowed her to work closely with her mentor to receive support and feedback on her research. Zacharia presented research at two conferences during her visit: the Sustainability and Development Conference at the University of Michigan, and the African Studies Association annual meeting in Atlanta, Georgia. She said that the experience of attending the conferences and presenting work to her peers was one that she is eager to repeat. “It has changed my entire outlook and attitude towards life of academics,” Zacharia said.

Access to the university libraries was another important benefit of her time as a visiting scholar. Zacharia said that the wealth of research resources, and the efficiency of accessing them, was important to conducting her work. She worked closely with experts in geographic information systems (GIS) to map groundwater data. Other visiting scholars, especially those from Uganda, Ghana, and Nigeria, supported Zacharia’s research by reviewing her work and providing new insights. She expects that the relationships she has built during this program, with faculty and other scholars, will extend long into the future. “It’s not easy to find someone to give you the support like I get here,” said Zacharia. “That support makes me more comfortable to start my research.”

Zacharia returns home to Tanzania at the end of February, where she will apply to PhD programs to continue her work. We wish her all the best and look forward to future partnerships with her.

It’s Up to Us – Transparency and the Public Value of Science

post developed by Katherine Pearson

There are people all over the world who need the social sciences to reconcile the problems of their lives. At the Open Social Science Conference in Mannheim, Germany, Arthur Lupia told attendees that this is why social scientists must work to ensure that their work is transparent and credible. Lupia delivered his keynote address “It’s Up to Us – Transparency and the Public Value of Science” on Friday, January 25, 2019. A recording of the talk is available online.

Lupia studies how people make decisions when they don’t have much information. Quantitative researchers, he notes, make scientific claims backed up by proofs. A proof allows others to understand the thought process and produce the same result. It allows researchers to go beyond their own understanding, and bring others along.

It’s not always sufficient to show evidence, however. The scientist must also consider the person who receives the information: what they pay attention to, how they make sense of that information, what they understand. In order to create change, social science research must first reach its audience. The way scientists communicate knowledge makes a difference.

What makes social science research valuable to people who use it?

The mission of social science researchers, according to Lupia, is to offer people a better understanding of the relationship between things they can see and things they can do.

The amount of information available has increased greatly within our lifetimes. An abundance of information is available online. So why should anyone seek out rigorous scientific research? If information can be found for free, why should anyone fund social science?

To answer these questions, Lupia starts by explaining that decisions rely on evaluations of evidence. The essential criteria for evaluating evidence are:

  • Credibility – there is something about the claim that is trustworthy?
  • Legitimacy – is this claim developed in accordance with recognized principles?

Challenges facing scientists

While scientific inquiry fosters greater honesty in evaluations, the incentives that scientists face present challenges, as well. Scientists have a strong incentive to discover novel findings and publish them. The marketplace rewards claims that go viral. On the other hand, the incentives to explain how these discoveries emerge are very weak.

These incentives threaten the meaning and the value of the research. If scientists publish only astonishing results, but ignore more mundane studies that disagree, scientific credibility and legitimacy are eroded. If social scientists want to advance research that improves quality of life in the world, then credibility and legitimacy matter a lot.

Opportunities to improve transparency

Transparency in scientific research can be improved by creating better incentives. Because researchers already have strong incentives to publish, Lupia suggests that it makes sense to focus efforts on academic journals. He gave several examples of incentives that help journals increase transparency.

The Data Access and Research Transparency (DA-RT) Statement increases transparency in social science. The statement was signed by 28 academic journals that promised to “commit to greater data access and research transparency, and to implementing policies requiring authors to make as accessible as possible the empirical foundation and logic of inquiry of evidence-based research.”

The Transparency and Openness Promotion Guidelines are a model for increasing transparency in publishing. Created by the Center for Open Science, over 8,000 journals have committed to these guidelines. CoS badges

The Center for Open Science has created badges to show when a study has preregistered, uses open data, or uses open materials. Research has shown that implementing these badges dramatically increases the rate of data sharing.

The Election Research Preacceptance Competition, led by Lupia and Brendan Nyhan, asked researchers to design a paper using data from the 2016 American National Election Studies (ANES) and submit the design to a participating journal before the data were available for analysis. In return, selected entries were offered an award of $2,000 and placement on a panel at a major political science conference. This challenged researchers to share ideas regardless of whether the analysis yielded the expected results. Lupia noted that they received fewer submissions than they expected. He suspects that it’s difficult for researchers, especially younger ones, to take the risk to publicly share an idea without knowing what the outcome will be.

The value of social science is up to us

When was the golden age of social science? Lupia says it is dawning right now. Scientists must ensure their work has value to those who can use it to make change, and that’s why they need to commit to greater transparency. Increasing transparency requires creating incentives and improving infrastructure for openness. Most people who consume scientific research will never read the evidence that went into the findings. Instead they take the results on faith. Lupia cautions that if researchers don’t uphold standards of transparency, they lose their value as credible sources of knowledge. 

Portrait of a birther: White conservatives with political knowledge more likely to believe Obama conspiracy

Post developed by Morgan Sherburne for Michigan News.

White conservatives who not only have racial animus but are also knowledgeable about politics were the most likely group to believe that former President Barack Obama was not born in the United States, according to a University of Michigan Institute for Social Research study.

Michael Traugott and Ashley Jardina

Michael Traugott and Ashley Jardina

The study, published in the Journal of Race, Ethnicity and Politics, teased out motivations of white voters for believing the so-called birther rumor. It found that white conservatives who ranked as having a high amount of knowledge were most likely to support the idea that Obama was not born in the U.S.

“This is a piece of social science research about biased perceptions in the political world and what their consequences might be,” said the study’s co-author Michael Traugott, a researcher at the Center for Political Studies at ISR. “It’s relevant because the whole concept of fake news is about devaluing information that doesn’t conform to either what you believe or what you want other people to believe, therefore suggesting a basis upon which it can be discounted or thrown away.”

Traugott and co-author Ashley Jardina, a former U-M doctoral student and now an assistant professor of political science at Duke University, say politically knowledgeable conservatives may be more likely to believe the rumor because they may follow what’s called a “motivated reasoning model.”

“One of the most interesting things about the motivated reasoning model is that the more resources the person has—which could be political information—the better they are able to argue against new information that doesn’t fit their worldview,” said Traugott.

Traugott and Jardina explored a portrait of a birther among white Americans using data from the 2012 American National Election Study. The ANES, conducted in person among a nationally representative sample of respondents, asked several questions assessing belief in contemporary conspiracy theories.

As recently as 2017, nearly a third of U.S. adults believed it was possible Obama was born outside the U.S., according to the researchers.

The survey also assessed participants’ knowledge by asking them to identify the office held by several political figures. A respondent’s score on the scale was the proportion of correctly answered questions.

The researchers found that 62 percent of very strong Republicans reported that Obama was born in the U.S. compared to 89 percent of very strong Democrats. Thirty-eight percent of very strong Republicans reported that Obama was probably born in another country, while 11 percent of very strong Democrats reported the same.

To estimate the impact of racial attitudes on the birther rumor, the researchers compared two conspiracy theories detailed in the 2012 ANES survey: the Obama birther rumor and the existence of the Affordable Care Act “death panels,” or, the idea that the ACA authorized government panels to make end-of-life decisions for people on Medicare.

Additionally, the researchers found:

  • Strong Republicans with higher levels of racial animus are more inclined to believe the birther rumor, but not the death panel rumor.
  • Republicans both low on resentment and low on knowledge are also more inclined to believe the birther rumor.
  • Democrats with higher levels of racial resentment are not significantly inclined to adopt either rumor.
  • Democrats low on knowledge and high on resentment are more likely to adopt birther beliefs.
  • High-knowledge Democrats with high levels of racial resentment are less likely to believe the rumor.

“Until recently, the relationship of party identification to things like voting behavior had weakened, but it has strengthened again,” Traugott said. “We expected partisanship would play a role in attitudes about Barack Obama, and because he was an African American, racial attitudes would play a role as well. These things are now increasingly important because of this kind of tribalism that’s infecting contemporary politics.”

 

More information:

Round Table Analyzes Salient Themes in the Upcoming 2018 Midterm Elections

On Thursday, November 1, 2018 the Center for Political Studies hosted a round table discussion on the 2018 midterm elections. A panel of three experts presented data and analysis of the most important trends in political attitudes and behavior that they see emerging in the weeks leading up to the elections. A recording of this event is available here.

Ashley Jardina, Assistant Professor of Political Science at Duke University, spoke about the trends in race, gender, and racial attitudes that are emerging in her research. She shared images from political ads and news articles that illustrate the heightened emphasis on race in this election cycle, including displays of the Confederate flag, politicized messages about the caravan of migrants from Central America, and President’s Trump’s recent announcement of plans to end birthright citizenship.

Jardina shared polling data from Gallup and Pew that demonstrate the divide between Democrats and Republicans with regard to their attitudes about immigration. These data show that while 75% of registered Republicans think that illegal immigration is a big problem, only 19% of registered Democrats felt the same way. Data from the American National Election Studies (ANES) also shows partisan differences in support for birthright citizenship, as illustrated in the graphic below.

Graphic showing support for Eliminating birthright citizenship in the United States

Identity politics have become an increasingly notable theme in the current election cycle, one which Jardina’s forthcoming book, White Identity Politics, examines. She notes that President Trump appeals to a base of white voters who feel attached to their racial group and possess a sense of racial identity or racial consciousness. She finds that the 2018 midterms are significantly about issues of race and identity, and many Republican candidates are appealing to voters’ attitudes about race and immigration, following President Trump’s lead.

Next, Brendan Nyhan, Professor of Public Policy at the University of Michigan Ford School of Public Policy and Faculty Associate at the Center for Political Studies, discussed the challenges of forecasting the outcome of the elections, and the role of misinformation in campaigns.

Nyhan began his talk by noting that many Americans have difficulty interpreting polls, and may be surprised by the actual outcomes. Rather than dwelling on predictions, he turned instead to three broader questions:

  1. What is the state of U.S. democracy in 2018?
  2. To what extent is Trump changing the Republican Party?
  3. What role do conspiracy theories and misinformation now play in our democracy?

Experts see a downturn in quality of U.S. democracy, according to data presented by Nyhan (see graph below). He notes that this trend is consistent with what many observe in the news, and reflects concerns about interference in investigations and voting rights, and limitations on the power of government. This election is not a referendum on these issues, says Nyhan, but this is an important time to be aware of the potential erosion of democracy.

Graphic showing decline in expert ratings of democracy in the United States.

Nyhan notes that President Trump has increasingly fallen in line with the Republican party when it comes to accomplishing long-standing aspects of the party agenda, including passing tax cuts and appointing conservative judges. However, he also argues that President Trump appears to be pivoting the Republican party toward ethnonationalism in a way that may outlast his presidency. Policies like separating the children of asylum seekers from their parents are moving ideas that were once at the fringe to the center of the Republican party.

Whereas the Republican party has focused strongly on identity issues leading up to the midterm elections, the Democratic party has campaigned largely on the issue of health care. Nyhan notes that there has been a notable shift in the tone of racial language in the campaigns, with rhetoric about the campaign of migrants stoking racial fears. He concludes that voters should be shocked by the explicit fear mongering presented by campaigns in this election cycle.

Stuart Soroka, Professor of Communication Studies and Professor of Political Science and Faculty Associate at the Center for Political Studies, presented a content analysis from open-ended survey responses and from news coverage for the last two months.

He showed results of surveys conducted in collaboration with SurveyMonkey, the Washington Post, and researchers affiliated with the S3MC project. These nationally-representative surveys asked, “If the election for the US House of Representatives were held today, would you vote?” and then asked “Why?” The open-ended responses to “Why?” were analyzed to reveal differences behind the reasons that Democrats and Republicans are making their choices on election day. Distinguishing words, words that are most uniquely linked to Democrats or Republicans, are shown in the graphic below. Soroka notes that Democrats frequently mention Republicans in their response, and Republicans frequently mention Democrats, suggesting that voters from each party are strongly motivated to vote against the opposing party.

Survey results showing the words that distinguish respondents of each political party.

Soroka also presented an analysis of newspaper content, including all articles mentioning “election” or “campaign” from August through the end of October during midterm election years 2006-2018, in 17 major newspapers archived in Lexis-Nexis. This amounts to approximately 20,000 articles and between 35-70,000 individual sentences (that do not mention polls), coded for sentiment using the Lexicoder Sentiment Dictionary. In the 2018 data, he finds a strong relationship between the predicted advantage for Democrats and negative news sentiment. Soroka warns that he is not arguing that news is affecting attitudes, but that news moves along with political attitudes. Based on his analysis of these data from newspapers, Soroka concludes that the nature of media coverage is going through dramatic changes because of the way the press report on President Trump.

 

Making Education Work for the Poor: The Potential of Children’s Savings Accounts

Post written by Katherine Pearson

Dr. William Elliott contends that we need a revolution in the way we finance college education. His new book Making Education Work for the Poor, written with Melinda Lewis, takes a hard look at the inequalities in access to education, and how these inequalities are threatening the American dream. Elliott and Lewis present data and analyses outlining problems plaguing the system of student loans, while also proposing children’s savings accounts as a robust solution to rising college costs, skyrocketing debt burdens, and growing wealth inequality. In a presentation at the University of Michigan on October 3, 2018, Elliott presented new research supporting the case for children’s savings accounts and rewards card programs.

This video of Elliott’s talk was recorded by Poverty Solutions at the University of Michigan.

There is a prevailing belief that education provides a path to success and greater income. However, Elliott points out that income provides a means to survive, whereas assets determine who will thrive. Our current educational financing system, which relies mainly on student loans, may help some students reach higher income levels, but it does not equalize the wealth gap. In fact, the high debt burden of student loans actually widens that gap.

Defining the Problem

College access is more than a matter of having enough money to pay for a college education. Elliott asks a different question: are you better off going to college than not going? And does college pay off equally whether or not you graduate with debt.

Student loans have become the dominant means to finance a college education. In 2000, student loans made up 38% of net tuition, fees, room, and board; by 2013 they made up 50% (Greenstone, Looney, Patashnik, and Yu, 2013). Programs such as income-based repayment seem popular because they decrease loan defaults, but they actually increase debt burden by extending the length of time it takes to pay off the loan.

Data shows that assets matter

Elliott uses data to show that students who have to pay for college with student loans do not achieve the same outcomes as students who do not have to take out loans. According to the Government Accounting Office, assuming a standard ten-year payback at 7% annual interest, average cumulative undergraduate educational debt exceeded $18,000 in 2000. This means that students who take out loans pay $6,000 more in interest than their peers who did not take loans. Elliott challenges us: does this sound like equal opportunity? Furthermore, data shows that low-income students and African Americans earn less from their college degrees as adults. If education is to equalize these disparities, the return on the investment in a college a degree must be higher for all children, particularly those with low incomes and students of color.

Wealth inequality contributes to having higher amounts of student debt. Racial disparities in income and wealth account for over 35% of the black-white student loan debt in young adulthood. (Huelsman, 2015) This debt contributes to education’s failure to deliver on the opportunity to achieve the American dream. Research finds that acquiring the relatively small amount of $10,000 in student loans is associated with an 18% decrease in the rate of achieving median net worth.

In short, growing up in a family with less wealth contributes to having more student debt, and having more student debt contributes to having less wealth as a young adult creating a cycle of inequality from one generation to the next.

Small Dollar CSAs Build Wealth

Elliott shows that children’s savings accounts (CSA) have a positive effect on a family’s ability to save for college. However, small dollar CSAs haven’t been able to fully overcome the fact that low-income and minority families often have little money after they pay for basic needs.

The graphic above shows contribution value and total CSA value for the Harold Alfond College Challenge (HACC).

The graphic above shows contribution value and total CSA value for the Harold Alfond College Challenge (HACC).

One answer to this dilemma may be rewards cards. Elliott presented data from programs set up by grocery stores that offer a percentage of their sales to CSA programs, on the expectation of increasing sales volume. This intervention transforms spending into saving. Not only are families able to save without tapping into already very limited financial resources, it shapes the children’s expectations that they will be able to go to college, and start planning for their future with a greater sense of control.

Looking forward, Elliott and fellow researchers are launching three randomized control trials of rewards card programs in Wabash County, Indiana; St. Louis, Missouri; and Lansing, Michigan. These trials will examine whether or not families will actively save for college using a rewards card, how much they are able to save, and whether or not families will make a contribution to the CSA in addition to saving with the rewards card. Already, early results show an increase in savings. The rewards cards tripled the number of households actively saving via rewards cards, and consequently increased the averaged dollars saved after only 3 months. Behavioral and financial literacy attempts have not been effective way to increase college savings among the poor because low-income people have little money to contribute regardless of their level of financial literacy. Rewards programs, on the other hand, appear to be a promising way to help low-income families participate in saving in CSAs.

Promise Indiana 3 month results

An Asset Building Agenda for the 21st Century

Elliott likens CSAs to the plumbing, the most basic infrastructure, of a new system of education financing for the 21st century. Rewards cards add a new layer to that system that allows poor families to access the system of saving for college.

Creating a system where more people can build assets is a direct way to start closing the wealth gap in America. However, students with fewer assets end up paying much more for education when they can access it. Elliott argues that the idea of a wealth transfer is completely consistent with American history and with our collective narrative of individual effort. It is about equipping all children with tools that complement their own contributions. There are historical precedents for this type of wealth transfer, too: the Homestead Act and the GI Bill. Both required considerable individual effort, yet offered real promise to change the distributional consequences of existing systems—property ownership, on the one hand, and higher education, on the other—in ways that helped to transform power and pathways to prosperity, for generations. In the 21th Century there has yet to be such a wealth transfer, although the need has never been more urgent.

 

Tracking the Dynamics of the 2016 Election

This post was developed by Catherine Allen-West, Stuart Soroka and Michael Traugott

It’s an election year in America, and with that comes an endless string of media coverage of the political campaigns. If you are like 70% to 80% of Americans over the past 12 weeks, you’ve read, seen or heard some information about the top two presidential candidates, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, on any given day.

These are the findings from an ongoing research collaboration between Gallup, the University of Michigan and Georgetown University. Since July 11, 2016 Gallup has asked 500 respondents per night what they have read, seen or heard about Clinton or Trump that day. The resulting data include open-ended responses from over 30,000 Americans thus far.

Content analyses of these open-ended responses offer a unique picture of campaign dynamics.  The responses capture whatever respondents remember hearing about the candidates over the previous few days from traditional media, social media, or friends and family. As Gallup points out in the article above, results from this project are noteworthy because while most survey research tracks Americans’ opinions on candidates leading up to an election, this study looks directly at the information the public absorbs, on a daily basis.


For up to date results from this project visit: www.electiondynamics.org


Tracking the ‘Tone’ of What Americans Have Read, Seen or Heard

In this blog post, we offer some supplementary analysis, focusing on the tone of responses to the “read, seen or heard” question.  Positive and negative tone (or sentiment) are captured using the Lexicoder Sentiment Dictionary, run in Lexicoder.  The Lexicoder Sentiment Dictionary includes roughly 6,000 positive or negative words.  We count the frequency of both, and produce a measure of tone that is the % positive words – % negative words, for every response, from every respondent.

Taking the average tone of responses daily provides insight into the content that American citizens are receiving (and remembering) during the campaign.  In this analysis, we focus on measures of “candidate advantage,” where “Clinton advantage” is the gap between the tone of responses to the “read, seen or heard” question about Clinton, and the tone of responses to the “read, seen or heard” question about Trump.  Positive values reflect a systematic advantage for Clinton; that is, a tendency for recalled information about Clinton to be more positive than recalled information about Trump.  Negative values reflect the opposite.

As would be expected, when we look at partisanship, Republicans have more a net positive assessment for Trump. This is particularly true in the first weeks of September.  Democrats show a similar tendency in that they have more net positive assessments for Clinton.  That said, the first few weeks of September show, at best, a very weak advantage for Clinton among Democrats.  During the early weeks of September, Democrats’ recalled news was not markedly more positive for Clinton than it was for Trump.  ‘Read, seen or heard’ comments from Democrats even turned to Trump’s advantage in the period from September 16th to 18th, before trending more positive towards Clinton again.  This shift from Democrats followed concerns about Clinton’s health, but it also (and relatedly) reduced mentions of emails. This trend continued after the recent bombings in New York and New Jersey became prominent. And then came her performance in the debate.  All of this coverage led to a steady increase in Clinton’s advantage among Democrats.

figure_cand_tone_daily_clinton_sept29

For Republicans, the picture is nearly the opposite.  The gap between recalled information about Trump and recalled information about Clinton was striking through the first few weeks of September.  While Democrats did not recall information favorable to Clinton, Republicans clearly recalled information favorable to Trump.  But responses started to shift in the middle of the month and the ‘Trump Advantage’ in the tone of recalled information from Republicans has continued to fall since the first debate.

figure_cand_tone_daily_trump_sept29-1

What do these findings suggest about the presidential campaign thus far?  While these results do not capture vote intentions, nor are they direct assessments of the candidates, these data do give us a unique sense for the information that voters remember.  Whether shifts in ‘read, seen or heard’ mentions are predictive of attitudes towards the candidates remains to be seen.  Exploring this possibility is one objective of the ongoing project.

The Gallup, Michigan, Georgetown Working Group consists of: Frank Newport, Lisa Singh, Stuart Soroka, Michael Traugott, and Andrew Dugan.

Related Article: After the Debate, Trump is still dominating news coverage. But Clinton is getting the good press. The Washington Post.

Trading hard hats for combat helmets: The economics of rebellion in eastern Ukraine

Post developed by Yioryos Nardis in coordination with Yuri Zhukov.

In March and April 2014, angry mobs and armed men stormed administrative buildings and police stations in eastern Ukraine. Waving Russian flags and condemning the post-revolutionary government in Kyiv as an illegal junta, the rebels proclaimed the establishment of ‘Peoples’ Republics’ of Donetsk and Luhansk, and organized a referendum on independence. Despite initial fears that the uprising might spread to other provinces, the rebellion remained surprisingly contained. While 61% of municipalities in Donetsk and Luhansk fell under rebel control during the first year of the conflict, just 20% experienced any rebel violence. What explains these local differences in rebellion across eastern Ukraine? Why have some towns remained under government control while others slipped away? Why might two municipalities in the same region experience different levels of separatist activity?

Yuri Zhukov

Yuri Zhukov

The latest research by Yuri Zhukov, faculty member in the Center for Political Studies and Assistant Professor of Political Science, uses new micro-level data on violence and economic activity in eastern Ukraine to examine these questions. In the paper “Trading hard hats for combat helmets: The economics of rebellion in eastern Ukraine” (forthcoming in the Journal of Comparative Economics) Zhukov evaluates two prominent explanations on the causes and dynamics of civil conflict in eastern Ukraine: ethnicity and economics.

Identity-based explanations expect conflict to be more likely and more intense in areas where ethnic groups are geographically concentrated. According to this view, the geographic concentration of an ethnolinguistic minority – in this case, Russians or Russian speaking Ukrainians – helps local rebels overcome collective action problems, while attracting an influx of fighters, weapons and economic aid from co-ethnics in neighboring states.

According to economic explanations, as real income from less risky legal activities declines relative to income from rebellious behavior, participation in the rebellion is expected to rise. This framework maintains that violence should be most pervasive in areas potentially harmed by trade openness with the EU, austerity and trade barriers with Russia.

Zhukov finds that local economic factors are much stronger predictors of rebel violence and territorial control than Russian ethnicity or language. Pro-Russian rebels in Ukraine are “pro-Russian” not because they speak Russian, but because their economic livelihood depends on trade with Russia.

The study uses new micro-level data on violence, ethnicity and economic activity in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine, to understand how these two explanations are related to rebel violence and territorial control. The spatial units are 3037 municipalities (i.e. cities, towns, villages) in Donetsk and Luhansk provinces. For each municipality, Zhukov estimated the proportion of the local labor force employed in three industries: machine-building (which is heavily dependent on exports to Russia), metals (less dependent on Russia, and a potential beneficiary of increased trade with the European Union), and mining (vulnerable to International Monetary Fund-imposed austerity and cuts in state-subsidies). He also calculated the proportion of Russian speakers in each locality.

Rebel violence data are based on human-assisted machine coding of incident reports from multiple sources, including Ukrainian and Russian news agencies, government and rebel press releases, daily ‘conflict maps’ released by both sides, and social media news feeds. This yielded 10,567 unique violent events in the Donbas, at the municipality level, recorded between the departure of President Viktor Yanukovych in February 2014 and the second Minsk ceasefire agreement of February 2015. To determine territorial control, particularly whether a populated place was under rebel or government control on a given day, Zhukov used three sources: official daily situation maps publicly released by Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council (RNBO), daily maps assembled by the pro-rebel bloggers ‘dragon_first_1’ and ‘kot_ivanov’, and Facebook posts on rebel checkpoint location.

zhukov_allTo evaluate the relative explanatory power of ethnic and economic explanations of violence in the Donbas, the study uses Bayesian Model Averaging. It finds that a municipality’s prewar employment mix is a better predictor of rebel activity than local ethnolinguistic composition. Municipalities more exposed to trade shocks with Russia experienced a higher intensity of rebel violence throughout the conflict. Municipalities where machine-building represented a small share of local employment (2%, the lowest in the data) were 38% less likely to experience violence than municipalities where the industry was more dominant — and the local population more vulnerable to trade disruptions with Russia. Such localities also fell under rebel control earlier – and took longer for the government to liberate – than municipalities where the labor force was less dependent on exports to Russia. On any given day, a municipality with higher-than-average employment in the beleaguered machine-building industry (26%) was about twice as likely to fall under rebel control as a municipality with below-average employment in the industry (4%).

By contrast, ethnicity and language had no discernible impact on rebel violence. Municipalities with large Russian-speaking populations were more likely to fall under rebel control, but only where economic dependence on Russia was relatively low. In other words, ethnicity only had an effect where economic incentives for rebellion were weak.

The seemingly rational economic self-interest at the heart of the conflict stands in sharp contrast with the staggering costs of war. In the twelve months since armed men began storming government buildings in the Donbas, over 6000 people have lost their lives, and over a million have been displaced. Regional industrial production fell by 49.9% in 2014, with machinery exports to Russia down by 82%.Suffering heavy damage from shelling, many factories have closed. With airports destroyed, railroad links severed and roads heavily mined, a previously export-oriented economy has found itself isolated from the outside world.

References:

2001 Ukrainian Census (State Committee on Statistics of Ukraine, 2001).

Bureau van Dijk’s Orbis database (Bureau van Dijk Electronic Publishing, 2015).

Segodnya, 2015. Ekonomika donetskoy oblasti v upadke iz-za voyny – gubernator kikhtenko. [Donetsk region’s economy in stagnation because of the war – Governor Kikhtenko]. Segodnya.

Stasenko, M., 2014. Novaya ekonomika ukrainy budet stroit’sya bez rossii i donbassa [Ukraine’s new economy will be built without Russia or the Donbas]. Delo.ua.