Policy Issues and Emotions

Charles Taber (Credit: SUNY Stony Brook)

Charles Taber says his findings on the role emotions play in political decision-making "challenge conventional wisdom." Nobody should be surprised: Taber's life and career path haven't exactly followed convention. The son of U.S. missionaries, he was born in the Central African Republic, worked stints in a bakery, a rock band, and a military cryptology program, and eventually became a political scientist--"by accident," he says. Now an associate professor of political science at Stony Brook University in New York, Taber has ended up pursuing fundamental questions about the human condition that, he says, have intrigued him all his life.

Life in Africa

When Taber was 2, his father was diagnosed with cancer, and the family moved to the United States so that his father could receive treatment. After beating the illness, Taber's father enrolled in a doctoral program in anthropology and linguistics. Later, when Taber was 9, he and his family moved back to Africa, and Taber grew up in Ghana, the Ivory Coast, and Zaire.

The elder Taber saw firsthand the importance of cultural understanding to mission work. He knew he wanted to help bridge the cultural divide. His zeal rubbed off on his son. "The stark contrast in the Ivory Coast between the extreme wealth of the few and the extreme poverty of the many became an abiding interest for me," the younger Taber explains.

Finding a purpose stateside

Taber's father taught at a small Tennessee Bible college after graduate school; the younger Taber eventually enrolled there and spent 2 years at the school before dropping out. He worked a variety of jobs, from managing fried-chicken restaurants throughout northern Florida to apprenticing at an Italian bakery in Boston. He even spent a few weeks in the U.S. Air Force, studying cryptolinguistics, until he was declared a security risk. "At that point, I didn't know what I wanted to do," he says.

Taber's international experiences finally lured him back to Tennessee to study international relations at East Tennessee State University. He played night gigs in a rock band to help make ends meet. He completed his B.S. in political science in 1984 and entered graduate school at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign (UIUC). At first, he intended to be an Africanist --a specialist in African culture and affairs --but decided he did not want to go into cultural anthropology.

After attending a barbecue hosted by UIUC Professor Dina Zinnes, who constructs mathematical models of international relations, he became more interested "in the theoretical questions: What makes people decide what political issues they favor, what makes people choose political candidates, what influences media has on the discussion." A research assistantship with psychobiographer Betty Glad, then at UIUC, got him interested in the application of social and cognitive psychology to political science, looking at causes and effects of political behavior. Taber completed his M.A. in political science in 1986 and decided to stay on at UIUC to work on his Ph.D.

With Zinnes as his doctoral adviser, Taber created an artificial-intelligence model of U.S. foreign-policy decision-making. "I'm pretty sure my dissertation was the first computer model of detailed mental processing to appear in a major political science journal," he observes. He defended his dissertation in 1991 and accepted a post at Stony Brook University.

Careers in Political Science

Considering a career in political science? Here are some observations about the field from Charles Taber:

  • The job market for political science in academia goes up and down in relation to current events. "The most recent such event was 9/11. ... I see no reason to see the job outlook for political science to decline in any way."

  • Entry-level skills usually include two full years of statistics courses and a good balance in all the subfields of political science: international relations, American politics, comparative politics, and political philosophy. Those with a political science background looking to leave for other jobs can often find places either in law or government. Conversely, those who work in political science sister fields--sociology, psychology, economics, and to a certain extent history--can easily make the move to political science.

  • One hot area is Taber's specialty of emotions in politics. Another popular subfield is the intersection of political science and biology; for example, twin studies looking at the impact of heredity on basic political attitudes and orientations. "In studying evolution, some of the earliest influences on human beings were political: increasing the size of their group, coordinating gathering areas, working out roles in society and the like," Taber explains. "How people evolved to solve cooperative games and abstract dilemmas is a political science issue."

  • To enter political science from biology, Taber recommends developing informal contacts with political scientists and joining formal collaborations. If you're starting out with a degree in a different field, getting a faculty job in political science would be tough but not impossible, Taber says: "One would probably need to publish extensively in political science to overcome the fact they don't have a degree in it."

  • Students interested in political science might try volunteering at local political campaigns, nongovernmental organizations, citizen advocacy groups, and interest groups. Attending workshops at the annual American Political Science Association (APSA) Convention each Labor Day weekend provides a learning experience and the opportunity to network. The APSA Web site is also a good resource.

Finding answers to fundamental questions

Taber is near the end of a 10-year project studying how people decide which candidates to vote for. He became interested in this question when he had the opportunity to work with some of the best people in the field, including Milton Lodge, who is also at Stony Brook University. That research, which was funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), asked undergraduate student volunteers to give positive or negative responses to words they were shown such as "Lincoln," "Hitler," "gun control," and "welfare." Taber kept track of reaction times and used electroencephalograms to look at electrical brain activity after stimulation.

"We're interested in what happens in the first 300 milliseconds after a political stimulus, what kinds of processes are going on nonconsciously," Taber explains. "We've found that people make their decisions after those first 300 milliseconds, and what follows is conscious processing we call rationalization."

Taber's work is challenging the conventional model of individual preferences when it comes to political behavior, which has long assumed that citizens, as rational creatures, compare how distant the positions of candidates are to their own. Taber finds, instead, that most conscious deliberation is a rationalization of preconscious preferences and decisions. "This theory is consistent with decades of survey data which show that people seem ignorant and uninterested in politics, but nevertheless somehow choose candidates that they would like if fully informed," he says.

A product of this research is a formal computational model that Taber and his colleagues call John Q. Public (JQP). The team used simulations based on JQP, and the Teragrid supercomputer network, to reproduce trends in survey data from the 2000 presidential campaign. Taber and Lodge are working on a book called The Rationalizing Voter that will detail their results .

Taber is starting a 2-year, NSF-funded project to look at race in U.S. politics--specifically, whether positions on race-related policies such as affirmative action hinge on automatic emotional responses toward racial groups. "Many political scientists believe that race is not a major factor in policy preferences today, and that old-fashioned racism is now essentially dead," Taber says. If so, "political conservatives who oppose integration policies, affirmative-action programs, welfare, etc., are driven by ideological principle--individualism and a Protestant work ethic, primarily--rather than racial antipathy. Some survey evidence supports this position; some do[es] not."

Taber says his experimental methods will allow him to determine whether positions on race and race-related issues can be "primed" by exposure to subliminal race-related cues. In this experiment, students were directed to look at a computer screen on which words such as "affirmative action" and "welfare" were quickly flashed--so quickly, in fact, that the students were unaware they had seen them. His data suggest that race comes to mind more easily and automatically when prompted by subliminal cues.

James Kuklinski, a professor of political science at UIUC, describes Taber's work as "exciting and highly creative. The innovative experiments are carefully executed, with each new experiment representing a logical next step in an effort to tell a bigger story. The accumulation of experimental findings represents one of the most visible and influential research programs in the social sciences."

Taber believes all social scientists face the challenge of recognizing and overcoming their own biases. "When I'm working on race, for instance, it's difficult to separate out my own abhorrence for racial prejudice. The only way to deal with that is to be honest with yourself about your biases."

This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation Grant No. SES-0549096. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

Charles Choi is a freelance writer and may be reached at cqchoi@nasw.org.

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