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Identity | Erik Nisbet

As a political scientist who studies communication, Erik Nisbet looks at identity from the perspective of public debates around controversial science issues such as climate change or vaccinations. He frames identity along the lines of political identity or deeply rooted beliefs on collective versus individualistic approaches to decision-making and provides examples on how these broader identities influence how we pay attention to and process science information. Erik Nisbet is a Professor of Policy Analysis & Communication and director of the Center for Communication & Public Policy at Northwestern University. We interviewed Erik Nisbet when he was an Associate Professor in the School of Communication at the Ohio State University. You can watch this short video or download the full interview transcript below.

"Identity influences how we process information about controversial science issues. It influences all type of cognitive process of selective exposure. What information we expose ourselves to, how we comprehend it, do we recall it or not, do we either reject or accept it."

Erik Nisbet, Professor of Policy Analysis & Communication and director of the Center for Communication & Public Policy at Northwestern University
Erik Nisbet

2017 Interview Highlights:

Tell us about your projects that focused on identity.
Most of my research is focused on the intersection of science and politics. In that context, I’ve looked at political identity—people who identify either as liberal or conservative or as Democrat or Republican.

How do you define “identity” in your work?
In addition to political identity, another area of research I’ve been developing lately is environmental identity. I think it’s an interesting area that’s undeveloped because there are different measures of our mental attitudes, our environmental values. There’s the environmental paradigm, of which people are very critical. There’s work in social psychology looking at altruistic and biospheric values, as well as narcissism. There’s also research that shows that people who identify as environmentalists are less likely to be politically active. Yet if you want to make political change, you actually have to engage in politics. I have done some survey work I haven’t published, which indicates that those who score high on the new environmental paradigm measure are actually less likely to engage in political behavior.

I’m interested in communication. It could be the media context. How do media and communication influence the centrality and salience of certain identities? In political science we often simply define it as “Are you Republican or Democrat, are you liberal or conservative?” When I actually look at the literature on identity, it’s much more complicated.

When we talk about political identity, I don’t think the “anti-science” cohort is hard-coded. It’s contextual based on the science issue being discussed and the amount of both political and media attention given to it. And it might be more cyclical.

Do you think that stronger ideological beliefs sometimes outweigh factual information?
They do make you more likely to engage in biased processing of information. In some of the polls by Pew, they looked at where the public stands on certain science issues versus what scientists believe, and there are definitely disagreements between scientists and those who hold more conservative views. There are also definitely disagreements between scientists and those who hold more liberal views.

Another misperception is that the more educated you are, the less likely you are to rely on what we call heuristics, which are mental shortcuts, and the less likely you are to engage in biased processing. But research by Kahan and psychologists have shown that just because those who sometimes engage in more cognitive reflection use more deliberative processing information doesn’t mean they actually have less biased outcomes.  They might actually have more. That’s why you find often the more ideologically coherent your political attitudes or political identity are, whether on the left or the right, the more likely you are to engaged in biased processing.
So you often see more of a divide between educated Republicans and educated Democrats than lower educated Republicans and lower educated Democrats on science issues. So I think there are a lot of misperceptions when it comes to science communication about the role that ideology and political identity play in shaping attitudes.

To what degree do you think identity matters for science communication?
I think it matters greatly across multiple dimensions. It influences how we process information about controversial science issues, like we already discussed. It influences all types of cognitive processes, of selective exposure, what human information we expose ourselves to, if we’re exposed to information, how we comprehend it, whether we recall it or not, whether we reject or accept it. So in terms of science communication, science learning is about people being exposed to information and accepting and internalizing information. It shapes those processes intrinsically.

Another aspect of identity that is important to understand is the role that identities play in shaping motivation and interest. I’m increasingly interested in the cognitive and behavioral impacts that science documentaries have. A movie like Hidden Figures has the opportunity to increase motivation and interest in science among African Americans. But the question is, does it also have an impact on the white majority and their perceptions of African Americans and African Americans’ contribution to science?

How do you measure identity in your work?
Sometimes simplistically by asking, “Do you identify as a Republican or Democrat? Are you liberal or conservative? How liberal or conservative are you?” I’ve also been developing two other measures. I draw on the literature in social psychology in identity. The literature refers to a term called “identity centrality.” It’s about how central identity is to your sense of self.

The other area of research I’ve been looking at is environmental values as differentiated from ideology. I’m looking at altruistic values, biospheric values, and narcissism when it comes to influencing value orientations.

Is it possible to create tools for measuring identity that practitioners or evaluators could easily use in their work?
I think so, yes. In the social science literature about identity, there are established scales and survey measures and experimental measures used to measure identity, including political, racial, and social identity and things like science identity. I’ve created and used measures in my work measuring environmental identity based on the literature in social psychology.

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