How Conflict Orientation Influences Emotional and Political Responses to Incivility

Download data and study materials from OSF

Principal investigator:

Emily Sydnor

University of Arizona



Sample size: 3080

Field period: 08/18/2016-09/01/2016


Researchers have documented incivility across a range of media (Anderson, Brossard, Scheufele, Xenos, & Ladwig, 2013; Berry & Sobeiraj, 2014; Papacharissi, 2004; Sobeiraj & Berry, 2011). In addition, incivility has been shown to affect a range of political attitudes and behaviors, including perceptions of legitimacy, trust in government, and participation (Brooks & Geer, 2007; Geer & Lau, 2006; Kahn & Kenney, 1999; Mutz & Reeves, 2005). Hearing someone say, “I disagree, and here is why” is a very different experience than “You idiot! I can’t believe you think something so stupid.” While most people will react more negatively to the second comment than the first, their reactions will also depend on how comfortable they are with conflict. Some people are generally conflict-avoidant and are uncomfortable with more uncivil ways of disagreeing (Goldstein, 1999; Testa, Hibbing, & Ritchie, 2014). Others are conflict-approaching and may be drawn to the debate because they find conflict and confrontation exciting. The purpose of this project is to investigate more precisely how individuals’ predisposition towards conflict affects their response to incivility in political discourse. More broadly, it speaks to the ways in which incivility can push difficult subjects to the forefront of the national political conversation and increase the amount of citizen political engagement while simultaneously diminishing its quality.


Hypotheses/Research Questions:

H1: Participants with stronger emotional responses to the treatment will be more likely to participate, either by sharing or commenting.

H2: Conflict orientation will have an additional, indirect effect on participation through respondents’ emotional responses to incivility. In other words, emotional response should serve as a mediator of the conflict orientation-participation relationship.

H3A: Conflict-approaching individuals who are exposed to incivility will be more driven to participate, but will also be more likely to use uncivil discourse in their own commentary.

H3B: Conflict-avoidant respondents who are exposed to incivility will shy away from participating and will indicate that this is because of the tenor of the conversation.

Experimental Manipulations

The treatments consisted of 45-second clips that varied in the presence of civility or incivility and their substantive content. One set was political in nature, featuring CSPAN coverage of Congressional hearings on Planned Parenthood. The second set of clips was entertainment-based and centered on two judges’ evaluations of food prepared by a contestant on the reality cooking show Master Chef. Each of the clips was pretested by a different online convenience sample and selected to maximize differences in perceived civility between the civil and uncivil clips while minimizing differences across the substantive topics.

The Planned Parenthood clips showed an exchange between members of the Congressional Oversight and Government Reform committee and Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards. In the civil condition, Representative Elijah Cummings (D-MD) argues in a reasoned, calm tone that the rule of law must be followed even if he or others wishes that it said something else. The uncivil clip depicts an exchange between Richards and Congressman Jim Jordan (R-OH). Jordan frequently interrupts Richards, raises his voice, holds his figure up as if he’s pointing or telling her to wait a minute, and ultimately accuses her of avoiding his questions.

In the Master Chef clips, a male contestant’s pasta dish is being judged. In the civil condition, a female judge is critical of the food but keeps an even tone and does not malign or otherwise insult the contestant. The uncivil condition presents an assessment of the same meal by a second, male judge. This judge is also critical, but he criticizes in a way that belittles the contestant, pointing to his “cavalier” and “oh poor me again, I got screwed up” attitude. He continues: “you want to show us how cutesy and intelligence and crafty you are. Well that’s going to get you a one-way ticket back to where you came from. And then you can show your friends and the six people who told you you were good how cutesy and smart you are while you’re at home cooking at dinner parties” (Joe vs Howard Pasta Challenge | Masterchef US, 2013).

Outcome Variables:

1. whether the respondent left a comment after watching the experimental treatment video clip

2. whether the respondent would share the clip on Facebook, Twitter, or other SNS

3. coding of the open-ended comments on the video, explanations for why they did/did not share:

a. No comment. The text entered either explains that the respondent does not have any questions or comments (n/a, no comment, I don’t have anything to say), is gibberish (fffffffff, gklsuddfa), or indicates problems with the video player.

b. Confusion or lack of information. Respondents note that they did not know what the video was talking about or did not feel they had enough information to draw a conclusion. This includes comments that just include question marks. It does not include questions that were asked about the substance of the video, such as “Was the food he had to make chosen for him?” or “Why were the Planned Parenthood videos altered?”

c. Metacommunication. The respondent “assesses what has transpired or is transpiring in the discussion” by denouncing uncivil behavior or highlighting civil behavior in his/her comment (Coe, Kenski and Rains 2014, 667). E.g. “I’m really disappointed in the way this exchange was handled” or “no need for them to insult one another.”

d. Use of uncivil language. Respondent used any number of criteria for incivility, including name-calling, mockery, character assassination, misrepresentative exaggeration (use of a much more extreme, inflammatory word or phrase that makes individual/action seem more radical), histrionics or conspiracy theories. (see Gervais 2014)

e. Offers political opinion. The respondent offers an opinion about relevant issues (rather than an assessment of the individuals’ dialogue or the experiment itself) or acknowledges agreement/disagreement with the speaker.

f. Asks questions to learn more. The respondent asks a question about or demonstrates interest in the substance of the video that suggests he or she wants to learn more about the topic or perspectives taken in the video. Comments like “I wonder what the video was about” would fall into this category, but statements about the lack of information—“I don’t know enough to comment”—would not.

Summary of Results

The conflict-approaching are the ones doing the sharing on social media, and they are sharing civil and uncivil video clips at roughly equivalent rates. Qualitative evidence from the comments suggests that people monitor the tone of conversations they watch on television, commenting when they find a particular exchange to be an egregious violation of norms or a surprising demonstration of civility and respect. While the evidence does not paint a crystal-clear picture about the role of conflict orientation in shaping the quality of discourse, it at least suggests that the conflict approaching are even more likely to use incivility when they see it on television than are their conflict-avoidant peers. On the other hand, the conflict-approaching are also more likely to offer their opinion on contentious issues like abortion or the role of Planned Parenthood regardless of whether they watch a civil or uncivil video clip. Their conflict-avoidant counterparts are silent in the face of incivility. Like time or public-speaking skills, a conflict-approaching orientation is a resource that helps certain citizens get involved in politics and express their ideas.


Works in progress:

Disrespectful Democracy: The Interaction of Political Incivility and Psychological Conflict Orientation (book manuscript)

Conference Papers:

“All politics is anymore is people arguing:” Incivility, Conflict Orientation, and Political Engagement, presented at the International Society for Political Psychology’s Annual Meeting, July 4-7, San Antonio, TX.