Lindsey Clark Levitan
Ph.D., The University of Chicago, 2007.
Department of Political Science
I joined the political psychology faculty at Stony Brook University after completing my Ph.D. in Social Psychology at the University of Chicago in 2007. My minor area was statistics.
Prior to that, I received my MA from the University of Chicago in 2004, and my BS in psychology from Carnegie Mellon University.
A well-informed citizenry voting according to thoroughly considered attitudes is central to the democratic ideal, but reality tends to fall short of this ideal. Voters are frequently under-informed, biased, or simply apathetic. I study how the social environment helps determine how close voters come to this ideal. Social connections can serve to motivate us politically by encouraging us to think about issues and candidates in new ways and to seek out new information about those issues and candidates, or by suppressing our consideration of alternate perspectives under the right conditions. I further consider the role of social influences in prejudice and discrimination.
Social Influences on Political Attitudes and Cognition
Attitudes are a critically important construct with enormous potential to influence a wide range of political behaviors. Yet not all attitudes are so deeply impactful. For example, if a woman has a positive attitude about a particular presidential candidate, she might act on her attitude by volunteering and of course by voting. Alternately she might waver over the course of the campaign, and do little to support her candidate, perhaps not even voting at all. Understanding how attitudes become meaningful and entrenched in an individual’s psyche is therefore instrumental in understanding political attitudes and behavior.
With this aim in mind, one line of my research has focused on how social influence, particularly that of close social network members, can help cement an attitude or destabilize it. Indeed, being surrounded by like-minded network members bolsters an attitude, making it more stable and more resistant to outside persuasion. This research has also tracked reverse-causal processes longitudinally, and has found that people’s own attitudes (entrenched or not) can help to determine with whom they choose to spend their time under some (surprisingly infrequent) circumstances.
My continuing research has focused on understanding the mechanisms behind these effects, and their implications for the degree to which attitudes are well-informed. Findings indicate that exposure to greater attitudinal diversity encourages greater information gathering and deeper consideration, whereas being surrounded by others who agree with each other can discourage consideration of information that might bring views out of step with the group, and encourage relatively blind and unconsidered change in order to bring views closer to unified but disagreeing group.
Other projects examine the boundary conditions of social influence, to determine what factors mitigate network effects and what factors exacerbate them. Factors which make network members’ views less valid or less diagnostic in determining correctness of ones views (e.g. linking the view to morals) also reduce social influence on those views.
Prejudice and Social Influence
A related line of research examines the role of social influence in prejudice and discrimination. Prejudice and discrimination are problems with which policy makers and citizens alike continue to grapple. Though much research has focused on the antecedents and consequences of prejudice, relatively little is known about when prejudice is more or less likely to be enacted behaviorally through political participation and vote choice, or what factors make some individuals more receptive than others to prejudice-reducing interventions.
Drawing on my first line of research, I demonstrate that individuals whose social network members hold similar views about another group hold that prejudice (or lack thereof) more tenaciously and are more likely to act on those prejudices than are individuals whose social network members’ views are less congruent with their own. Additionally, results demonstrate that an individual’s level of prejudice (e.g. against LGBT individuals) is more likely to influence their political views (e.g. gay marriage attitudes) when that prejudice is shared by network members.
Continuing research examines the mechanisms and boundary conditions of these effects. Overall, findings indicate that while prejudice research has often focused on intergroup contact, intragroup contact can also have an important and beneficial influence.
POL 564 - Social Influence (Masters)
POL 608 - Foundations, Political Psychology
POL 679 - Social Influence (PhD)