Gun control, a dormant issue for much of the 21st century, became a political hot-button again after the murder of children and adults at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. To effectively influence a country divided on the issue, elected officials must take a broad perspective rather than focusing on specific incidents, according to social psychologists from The University of Texas at Austin.
Psychologists Erin Burgoon and Marlone Henderson say public officials who are located out of state from their constituents and the incident are more likely to gain approval by framing their arguments around the abstract rather than specific incidents - it prompts people to consider the larger picture.
As for the representatives located closer to the participants, the researchers found they scored higher approval ratings for their decisions based on single incidents, such as the shooting in Arizona of former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in January 2011. When politicians speak at local events, they cue their constituents to focus on the specifics and look at the details Henderson says.
"By focusing on the here-and-now, people are likely to be much more accepting of a nearby politician's stance on gun control," Henderson says. "Yet when a more geographically distant politician gives a speech or an interview, people tend to think in broader terms and want their elected officials to do the same by avoiding basing their policies on a single shooting incident."
To make their determination, they asked 112 participants to read purportedly real interview responses made by their congressional representatives regarding gun control two weeks after the Arizona shooting. After identifying the location of the participants' residence, the researchers told them that Gallup had interviewed U.S. representatives, including their representative, about gun laws in light of recent crime statistics. They varied the location of the interview with the representative. That is, participants read that the interview either occurred at the representative's district office (closer) or the representative's Washington, D.C., office (more distant). They also varied whether the congressional representatives cited the Arizona shooting or a broader set of gun-related crime statistics.
According to their results, more participants were less supportive of a distant representative whose gun control position was based on the shooting rather than the statistics. However, participants were equally supportive of the closer representative who cited the shooting or statistics.
The scholars found similar results in a series of experiments describing decisions of other elected officials on a variety of policy issues (reallocation of police forces, homeland security, gun control, etc.). The findings suggest the constituent behaviors extend beyond the issue of gun control.
"Representatives should consider their distance from constituents when communicating their stance," says Burgoon, a psychology doctoral student and lead author of the study. "For example, an official making a statement at a town hall meeting may benefit from citing a single case, but would be wise to cite statistics or trends when sending a mass email from Washington, D.C."
Published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.