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Study explores how students form political views

Jan 30, 2018

Credit freeimages.com/Ann-Kathrin Rehse

A local researcher is embarking on a two year study to try to understand how young people develop their political views and reasoning.

Kevin Meuwissen, an associate professor at the University of Rochester's Warner School of Education, hopes his research will inform how politics is taught in schools.

He is looking to recruit 30 to 50 local high school students for the first phase of the study.

The students will be presented with relevant issues as they talk about how people's ethic and cultural values shape their attitudes and opinions.

"A relevant issue might be a question like, should a local government give monetary incentives to private businesses planning to build new properties with the promise that the development will benefit the public in the long run? In the midst of that conversation, they will be given tools they can use to see how values or commitments underlie people's ideas related to those issues."

Civic education seems to occupy a shrinking proportion of school curriculum, Meuwissen notes, at a time when many would argue it's needed now more than ever. Formal civic education tends to emphasize the basic functions of government and political history, but not the way people's views are shaped by ethical and cultural values.

Most research on how motivated reasoning influences political views is based on adults, according to Meuwissen.  He said some imagine that citizens approach public policy problems with an open mind by gathering facts from multiple sources, but an increasing amount of research says people don’t actually behave that way.

A University of Virginia study used an analogy to characterize a common approach to political thinking.

"Their analogy is that people tend to behave more like lawyers defending clients (their ethical and cultural values) rather than behaving like scientists investigating open public policy questions," said Meuwissen.

When asked if he thinks he’ll get push-back from parents as he tries to enroll students in his study in the current political climate, Meuwissen said he will emphasize the opportunities of the research.

"If there is an opportunity through a research study like this to help people engage in political discourse more effectively and mitigate some of the negativity that comes out of that discourse for adolescents who are just starting to understand and participate in that terrain, I would think that would be seen by a lot of people as a benefit."

Funding for the study comes from the Spencer Foundation's New Civics Initiative. It was launched in 2008 to fund research that asks how education can support civic and political thinking among students.